THE news that Oxford University intends to reduce the number of places available to British students by more than one thousand each year puts into sharp perspective the ongoing debate in the UK about improving access to the best education for all those able to take advantage of it.

The vacancies created by cutting UK places at the University will be offered to overseas students who pay the full cost of their tuition and accommodation, a sum approaching twenty thousand pounds a year. By contrast, the University receives only about half that amount for each of its UK students, even allowing for the three thousand pounds increase in tuition fees that was the subject of such anxious debate and knife-edge voting in Parliament last year.

Behind Oxford University's announcement lies the worry that financial constraints are lessening its ability to maintain its international standing, especially in comparison to the lavishly funded leading American universities. The Vice-Chancellor, John Hood, has admitted that “nearly all of the University's core activities lose money” and that it had a deficit of ninety-five million pounds on teaching and research in 2003. An increase in full-rate overseas students will not in itself close the financial gap; improved funding from other sources must be found, as must economies in the way the University undertakes its role; the famed one-on-one tutorial system may have to be replaced in order to enable the academic staff to spend more time on research.

Oxford's problems are replicated in greater or lesser degrees by most of the other twenty leading UK Universities.The Government has said that there will be no review of public funding until 2010. The bottom line is that fewer British students will get the opportunity of the best education Britain has to offer.