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Oxford Feels A Degree of Desperation

A stroll through this ancient university city, with its narrow, winding lanes, majestic college facades, and cheerfully gossiping clusters of students, might suggest Oxford is caught in a time warp - that the academic life that has produced 25 prime ministers is rooted in unchanging certainty. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Britain's Oxford and Cambridge Universities, which trace their starts to the 12th and 13th centuries, are beginning to glimpse the attractions of the more modern American road to a college education, where students pay their own fees instead of relying on government handouts.

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But as the elite institutions struggle to retain their place among the world's leading centers of higher learning, teachers and students are having to face what Robert Stevens calls a "double squeeze." (Related story, Page B5.)

The master of Pembroke, one of Oxford's poorest colleges, complains, "Current government policy seems calculated to reduce our income and therefore our ability to maintain standards."

Dr. Stevens, a former chancellor of the University of California, claims Oxford is "already hanging on by its fingertips." He maintains Cambridge is in similar straits.

Paul Edmunds, from Aberdeen, Scotland, who hopes to begin studying modern history later this year, asks, "Where am I going to find the 1,000 ($1,660) a year the government insists I must pay toward my fees? My family can't afford it."

Student loans are available, but many British undergraduates are reluctant to borrow heavily, preferring instead to rely on the government to cover their academic fees, as it has since 1960.

Oxford and Cambridge (known collectively as "Oxbridge") currently draw an extra benefit from government largesse. Together they receive 35 million ($58 million) a year to sustain a system under which each student is supposed to have an individual tutor.

The future of this unique but labor-intensive, and therefore expensive, system is at the heart of Oxbridge's problems.

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Prime Minister Tony Blair says in coming years he wants to cut the Oxbridge grant nearly in half. Simultaneously, the government intends to pass legislation forbidding individual colleges from charging students more than the 1,000 a year they are already complaining about.

The result, Stevens says, will be to make it impossible for Oxbridge to keep the system of one-on-one tutorials and to hold its place alongside Harvard, Yale, and the world's other elite universities.

If all academics thought like Stevens, the scene might be set for a head-on clash between the Labour government and two universities that have been in business since the Middle Ages. In fact, there are rifts within the Oxbridge establishment. Colin Lucas, Oxford University's vice chancellor, dismisses Stevens's fears as "nonsense."

"Oxford is no more falling out of the world league of excellence than is Cambridge," he says. "It is not a question of fees or funding. It is about being dynamic and vigorous."

Dr. Lucas concedes that the current government policy is "unwelcome," but rejects the view that the ancient universities face what Stevens calls "the prospect of terminal decline."

Students appear as divided as their teachers. Mr. Edmunds sees the one-on-one tutorial system as "the main reason why I want to study at Oxford." But in a coffee house on "The High," Oxford's main street, science student Mary Strachan has other ideas. "Everything depends on your tutor," she says. "If he or she is good, that's fine. But tutors can be lazy or inept, and what happens then?"

Whichever way you look at it, Oxford and Cambridge do appear to be in a financial vise. Sir Alec Broers, Cambridge University's vice chancellor, says cutting back the special Oxbridge grant and banning student fees "is placing a planning blight on all our developments."

One of the problems Oxbridge colleges face is that their distinguished alumni are stingy with cash once they turn their backs on the world of "dreaming spires." Stevens says Oxford's endowment is $2 billion, compared with $11 billion at Harvard. The richer colleges distribute part of their endowments to poorer neighbors, but it is not enough.

Some distinguished defenders of Oxbridge believe the universities must make what retired professor Sir Michael Howard, who has taught at both Oxford and Yale, calls "hard choices." A major focus, he says, has to be the tutorial system. He compares choosing a system of higher education to buying an automobile.

"If you want a good, reliable car that doesn't cost too much money to buy or maintain, you might buy a Ford," Sir Michael says. "But if you want something really superb and are prepared to pay for it, you would be inclined to go for a Rolls-Royce."

In fact, however, Howard believes the Oxbridge "Rolls-Royce ideal" of individual tutoring is "honored more in the breach than the observance. "Despite claims that students can expect to have their own individual tutors, it is becoming unusual for tutorials to be one-on-one," he says. "In any case there is a lot to be said for the American system, which allows a small group of students to get together with their teacher and exchange ideas."

Despite misgivings about tutorial teaching, Howard dismisses government plans to cut Oxbridge's special grant and ban student fees as "outrageous and unacceptable." He says they are "bound to lower standards in the long run."

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