Oxford and Cambridge university colleges hold £21bn in riches

Guardian study reveals how wealth of nearly 70 colleges is held in estates, endowments and artworks

Britain’s ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge have access to a staggering pool of wealth totalling almost £21bn, analysis by the Guardian has revealed.

Using a combination of freedom of information requests and audited accounts to piece together the estates, endowments, investments and other assets – including artworks and antiques – held by nearly 70 colleges and institutions shows the full extent of Oxbridge’s remarkable wealth.

Oxbridge’s total of at least £21bn is far beyond those of other British universities, and more than the combined investments of the other 22 members of the Russell Group of elite research universities, such as University College London.

The scale of Oxford and Cambridge’s affluence, built up over hundreds of years, is such that their assets could pay the tuition fees of every home and international student at UK universities and colleges for a year – and still leave £3bn to spare.

Trinity College, Cambridge, is the wealthiest of the individual colleges with published assets worth £1.3bn in its latest accounts. In Oxford, St John’s College tops the table with close to £600m in assets.

Ox bub
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The concentration of accumulated reserves of wealth in the hands of just two institutions raises questions over their slow progress in reforming their admissions processes, as well as casting doubt on Oxbridge’s insistence that its expensive tutorial system of teaching undergraduates is underfunded by student tuition fees.

Oxford last week published details of its undergraduate intake, in an effort in highlight the progress it has made in recruiting students from diverse backgrounds. But the university admitted that it “still has more work to do in attracting the most talented students from all backgrounds”.

The Guardian revealed in October that 82% of offers from Oxford in 2015 went to British students from the top two socio-economic groups.

David Lammy, MP
David Lammy, MP: ‘Why are Oxbridge colleges not spending even a tiny sliver of this wealth on foundation years to improve access for under-represented students?’ Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Earlier this year Louise Richardson, vice chancellor of the University of Oxford, defended the university’s efforts by pointing out that the university spends £17m a year on outreach activities and financial support.

But that spending amounts to just over 2% of the £787m cumulative net income that Oxford and its colleges enjoyed in 2017, and just a fraction of the central university’s assets of £3.2bn, which rises to £9bn once college funds are included.

David Lammy, the Labour MP who has been a vocal critic of Oxbridge’s admissions failures, said some of the universities’ vast wealth could be put to better use in funding sophisticated access and outreach programmes.

“Why are Oxbridge colleges not spending even a tiny sliver of this wealth on foundation years to improve access for under-represented students?” Lammy said.

“Why are colleges relying on undergraduate students to run outreach and access programmes instead of employing experienced professionals to go out to under-represented and disadvantaged areas to find the most talented students, regardless of their background?

“There can be no more excuses or passing the buck. With such a vast amount of wealth at their disposal I simply fail to see how it is tenable for Oxbridge colleges to continue to pay lip service to access and dedicate such a tiny proportion of their wealth to improving access.”

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But college bursars spoken to by the Guardian said that while the totals may look impressive, in many cases colleges were heavily circumscribed in how they could use the returns or the assets themselves. In some cases the funds were reserved for specified purposes, such as funding fellowships or student support, with conditions set by donors centuries beforehand.

Many of the more venerable colleges, such as Christ Church, Oxford, or King’s College, Cambridge, also faced considerable costs in maintaining their ancient buildings and grounds.

Cambridge university declined to comment. A spokesperson for Oxford said the university and its colleges had built up reserves to help maintain its high academic standards.

“The university and colleges use their assets to support research, fund teaching and make an Oxford education affordable and accessible for students of all backgrounds,” Oxford said in a statement.

“Many reserves are held for specific reasons and for our long-term sustainability. It is simply not the case that we have large unused funds immediately available for general spending.

Firefighters inspect the fire damage to the Grenfell Tower block
Firefighters inspect the fire damage to the Grenfell Tower block. Trinity College, Cambridge’s huge £563m investment fund recently included shares in Arconic, manufacturer of the faulty cladding. Photograph: Hannah Mckay/Reuters

“We are in an uncertain time for higher education funding and it is important to maintain and build reserves to ensure the university’s resilience against future challenges.

“The assets underpinning our unrestricted reserves include libraries and other university student resources which could not be sold off without irreparably damaging our academic mission.”

The financial advantage enjoyed by Oxford and Cambridge over their domestic rivals is set to widen even further. In the last two years the pair have used their high credit ratings and international reputations to issue bonds worth hundreds of millions of pounds on the capital markets.

Last December Oxford raised £750m after issuing a bond to be repaid in 100 years’ time, while Cambridge has this month announced plans to raise a further £600m by issuing bonds to take advantage of low interest rates. That tranche of debt follows Cambridge’s £350m bond issue in 2016, used to finance large-scale property developments in north Cambridge.

The figures also reveal how Oxbridge has continued to build on its inherited wealth. The 2002-2003 accounts for Oxford’s colleges showed combined assets of more than £1.6bn. Some 15 years of investments and fundraising later, the 2017 accounts suggest that figure has risen to £5.8bn.

Cambridge leads the way with consolidated net assets worth nearly £11.8bn across the university and its colleges – which equates to £390,000 per head for each of its 30,000 students and staff.

Despite Cambridge’s colleges alone sitting on assets worth just under £7bn, Queens’ College remains the only one accredited by the Living Wage Foundation, which currently sets the UK living wage at £8.75 an hour. Oxford does better with 12 colleges currently accredited.

While the published figures are high, the true extent of Oxbridge’s wealth is likely to be even higher.

Many colleges do not place a value on their historic main sites, which date as far back as the 13th century and sprawl across the cities of Oxford and Cambridge. And many of the wealthiest colleges do not account for “heritage assets” such as works of art, libraries or artefacts, whose value many college accounts describe as “immaterial”.

Messiah violin made by Antonius Stradivarius
The Messiah violin made by Antonius Stradivarius, held by the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Photograph: Alamy

The prized possessions of Oxford and Cambridge include Samuel Pepys’s diaries, a Sumerian clay tablet dating to 2,200 BC, the original manuscripts of AA Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh, and Isaac Newton’s Principia mathematica. Oxford’s museum, the Ashmolean, has drawings by Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci, and paintings by Picasso, Constable, Titian and Turner, as well as a Stradivarius violin. There are even rumours that the mummified head of Oliver Cromwell is buried beneath the chapel of Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge.

Cambridge’s Trinity College – which counts Isaac Newton, Vladimir Nabokov and Lord Byron as among its former students – with assets of £1.34bn amassed over nearly 500 years, is wealthier than all UK universities other than Manchester, Edinburgh and Imperial College London.

Trinity’s net assets have grown by nearly £160m in the space of a year in its most recent accounts – more than Oxford’s Balliol College has accumulated over 750 years. Trinity’s huge £563m investment fund recently included shares in the world’s largest arms companies, several partners in the Dakota Access pipeline, and Arconic, the supplier of the notorious cladding on Grenfell Tower.

Not all colleges are privy to immense swaths of wealth and there is a huge disparity between the richest and the poorest. The £32m assets of Cambridge’s Clare Hall College pale into insignificance against those of Trinity and its neighbour, King’s College, which has assets of £350m, including the £748,000 it received in annual literary royalties, including from the estate of the novelist EM Forster.

Cambridge has taken steps to address its own imbalances by operating the Colleges Fund, which requires the richer colleges to provide financial support to poorer colleges. Last year, St Edmund’s College supplemented its relatively meagre assets of £39m with £735,000 granted by the fund, while Trinity College made the biggest contributions with £2.3m.

Oxford also runs an equalisation fund to provide some support from the wealthiest colleges to their less well-off peers. But college bursars complain that the richest colleges undervalue or obscure their assets in order to restrain their contributions.

Despite their enormous wealth, the Oxbridge colleges courted controversy earlier this year after backing revisions to the main university staff pension scheme that would have led to staff across the UK seeing diminished pensions after retirement.


Richard Adams and Xavier Greenwood

The GuardianTramp

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