‘This isn’t an outdated ivory tower’: how Oxford university leapfrogged its rivals

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‘This isn’t an outdated ivory tower’: how Oxford university leapfrogged its rivals

It’s no secret that graduates from Oxford University can be found everywhere in the higher echelons of British public life. The university’s success in placing its graduates in jobs has seen it unseat Cambridge in the Guardian University Guide for the first time since 2011, pushing its traditional rival down to third place, behind St Andrews.

“It isn’t just the outdated image of an ivory tower, this is an institution that is deeply engaged in the world,” says Louise Richardson, vice-chancellor at Oxford. “There is a real entrepreneurial culture here.”

Oxford University – alongside Cambridge – has been a bastion of prestige and power for centuries, granting its graduates a passport to the elite. Its alumni dominate the cabinet, sit at the head of boardrooms, preside over courtrooms and run newspapers. Its particular strength is getting jobs for graduates from disciplines where there is typically lower employer demand, such as English literature and history.

This is a quality highlighted by the new graduate jobs data used in this year’s University Guide, which is collected 15 months after graduation rather than six. The new data is thought to more accurately reflect graduates’ employability, and has seen several traditional universities improve their score relative to their newer counterparts. For years, Oxford lagged behind in the earlier measure, reaching just 29th place last year. But the new dataset has enabled the university to claim second place for job prospects alongside Cambridge and the London School of Economics, with Imperial in first place.

To return to the top of the table, Oxford has been given the edge over Cambridge and St Andrews by its superior track record of recruiting students with lower grades who go on to secure a first or a 2:1.

Richardson says this is the result of a concerted effort by the university to widen access, following widespread criticism of its slow progress. “The socio-economic and ethnic diversity of our undergraduate student body has been transformed over the past five years, and we see this as a terrific success. We are very proud of our achievement,” she says.

Richardson identifies several reasons as to why Oxford graduates have such good job prospects. For starters, the university attracts capable students, who are filtered for their commitment and organisation by its separate early admissions process. These students are further selected for thorough academic interviews.

“We attract students who are, I think, predisposed to be successful,” says Richardson. “I have sat in on these interviews, and these are [conducted by] academics looking for people who of course are smart but who also care, and are forceful, about their subject. So the manner of selection is quite unusual, highly personalised, with enormous commitment by academics.”

Once successful candidates arrive at Oxford, they encounter its distinctive teaching style through the tutorial system. Unlike most other universities, students regularly meet their tutors in groups of one or two. This intensity, in combination with the sense of community fostered by the collegiate system, enables students to develop personal relationships with academics and understand their research.

The university also invests heavily in its careers service, provides support with internships, and leverages its impressive alumni network to help its students land jobs on graduation. “Historically, students relied on family networks, privileged students went to university, and family connections helped them get jobs. [Here] that is not the case; it’s the network of students and other alumni that help you,” says Richardson.

But recruiting talented, ambitious students and hothousing them in academic studies over three years arguably no longer equips graduates with the skills needed in the modern world. A final advantage that Richardson believes an Oxford education confers is more recent: access to the Oxford Foundry (OxFo), a social purpose-driven technology and entrepreneurship centre set up by the Saïd Business School.

“We have about 3,300 members of the Foundry, who are planning spin-out companies, exchanging ideas, developing companies, raising funds for their companies. It’s a really entrepreneurial culture to complement the research culture,” she says.

Unlike the rest of the university’s imposing architecture, OxFo is based in a former Victorian ice factory. Opened by Apple CEO Tim Cook in October 2017, the reclaimed warehouse aesthetic riffs on east London’s startup culture.

As well as giving entrepreneurial students a space in which to set up companies commercialising their academic research and meet potential investors, OxFo offers all students free workshops on coding, blockchain and AI.

“We’ve seen a massive increase in the number of students joining the university who want to start a business or who see pursuing startups as a viable career pathway – it’s now 18% of students. That’s a massive shift from five years ago,” says Ana Bakshi, OxFo’s director.

“Entrepreneurship has moved away from being an opportunity only available to people with a certain income background or a kind of Del Boy activity. And there’s no better place to do it than at a university that’s completely multidisciplinary.”

Bakshi says the Foundry is also driven by the need to meet employer demand for digital skills. “No longer is a graduate degree enough, the university recognised that ahead of time. It’s now thinking about how to upskill students complementary to a degree so they’re set up for life. It’s a shift in narrative. It’s not a degree opportunity, it’s a life opportunity.”

The Foundry has been especially busy during the coronavirus pandemic, with half of its 32 companies working on responding to the crisis. These range from Nye Health, a medical consultation platform nicknamed “Whatsapp for GPs” which closed an £3.8m funding round in April, to a sustainable laundry app called Oxwash.

The principal of Jesus College and computer science professorial fellow, Nigel Shadbolt, thinks this new emphasis on digital skills – combined with Oxford’s traditional strengths in the humanities and social sciences – is what makes its graduates so successful in the modern labour market.

“I can think of graduates going into AI companies, Google, Apple, social media and many new startups who have a broad range of skills. It’s not just the pure programmers and software engineers, or pure data analysts – it’s this broader appeal,” he says. “I look at college alumni – people who have taken a degree in one subject end up establishing a business in quite another field.”

Shadbolt cites the university’s new Institute for Ethics in AI, which he is helping to set up, as an example of Oxford’s strength in multidisciplinarity. The institute will bring together philosophy, computer science and engineering to explore what it means to be human in the 21st century, in a world where we are increasingly shaped by technological advances in AI, genetics and genomics. On a practical level, the institute’s work will inform law, regulation and governance in AI.

This approach to research is complemented by the traditional advantages of the collegiate system, which breaks the student and academic community down into smaller, more sociable groups.

“I’ve always been a big advocate of interdisciplinarity – that ideas get generated at the interface between disciplines. In a college environment that’s happening all the time,” he says.

“People break bread and socialise, sharing their time with historians and astronomers and mathematicians and social scientists. That mixing and fermenting of ideas really adds to the whole environment.”