Would Oxford really "go private" as its chancellor, Chris Patten, has suggested? The threat was made in defence of the university's right to continue taking almost half its students from among the 7 per cent of children who attend fee-charging schools. Measures to stop this would be "social engineering", Patten said. But it is an empty threat. Oxford cannot hope to pull in huge donations from its past students, as the private US universities such as Harvard and Yale do. When an American graduate gets to be rich, it is understood that he will give substantial lump sums to his old college, but we don't have that culture here.
In fact, going private would open universities to a more ruthless kind of social engineering. Already, in the scramble for private money, universities are rushing to teach whatever rich people and big companies think ought to be taught. That is why by far the biggest growth area is business schools. Thirty years ago, no university in the UK had a business school; now there is hardly a university without one, and it is nearly always the most expensively built and best-resourced department.
This is not because students are rushing to get MBAs; the MBA bubble has more or less burst, as people have begun to realise that although they have to invest a great deal of money to gain the qualification, it is no longer a gateway to huge wealth.
No: universities concentrate on business schools because that is what wealthy individuals and companies are willing to fund. At Oxford, by far the biggest expansion in recent years has been the transformation of the relatively modest Oxford School of Management Studies into the ambitious Said Business School. The latter was created because, in 1996, Syrian-born Wafiq Said had £20m to donate.
Cambridge's biggest expansion started in 1990, when it got £8m from Sir Paul Judge to start the Judge Business School. Sir Paul led a management buyout of part of Cadbury Schweppes in 1985 and then sold it for shedloads of money in 1989. He is a sincere man who believes that the world will be a better place when more of us understand and can operate the laws of capitalism. Perhaps he is right - and then again, perhaps not. But, in Patten's ideal world, it will be the likes of him and SaId who do the social engineering.