When Samuel Pepys visited Oxford in 1668, he paid a shilling to enter the study of Roger Bacon, the renowned 13th century scholar who worked in the old gatehouse — the original Folly on Folly Bridge. Pepys was well satisfied with his visitor experience, declaring Oxford to be a “mighty fine place”. Even then, scholarship was a draw. A few years later, in 1683, the Ashmolean became one of the first museums in England to open its doors to the public. So the University, it could be said, has been at the forefront of tourism for as long as anyone can remember.
But such populism was never entirely uncontroversial. In the 19th century the Duke of Wellington, then Chancellor of the University, campaigned against the coming of the railway for fear of tourist hordes disturbing the peace. Henceforth, the University’s stance was to “welcome but not encourage” visitors.
Today, the visitors need no encouragement. Oxford’s fame as a historic seat of learning and premier film location has spread to the ends of the Earth. In the words of one of an estimated 9.5 million visitors to the city last year, 15-year old Morgane from Igny, declared: “Oxford: C’est super-réputé!”. Mind you, this isn’t to everyone’s liking. As New College’s Dr William Poole recently ranted in The Oxford Times (22nd Nov2012) : “Tourists! So many of them seem to be here for reasons quite unconnected to Oxford. We can’t stop it but we can at least hate it.”
Generally speaking, though, the University has embraced the ever-growing interest, with many brilliant minds concentrating their attention on how to manage and make the most of it. Christ Church has become the top destination for the tourists, adroitly cashing in on its associations with Alice in Wonderland and Harry Potter, whilst staff in numerous colleges can reminisce about their time as extras in episodes of Morse and Lewis.
Even the students seem happy. David J. Townsend, current OUSU President, has commented that “tourism… has an aesthetic, even philosophical, benefit for us as student residents… it makes you slow down and remember how beautiful a city we live in.” The only problem he highlights is a lack of vacation residence and storage when rooms are let out: “It's not the end of the world if 9th Week arrives and you have to cart your stuff back to Colchester, but it's much harder if you have to take it all the way back to Kolkata!”
Keeping the balance between the University’s core academic raison d’être and more worldly commercial imperatives will always be a challenge, but ignoring money-making opportunities is not an option for most. The question is how far to go. The line between business and scholarship is most comfortably and successfully straddled by the University’s conference business. As Douglas Bamber, Domestic Bursar at Merton, explains, for the less well-endowed colleges, conference income is crucial to underpin academic activities. Conference Oxford, of which Bamber is chairman, was set up in 1994 as a portal through which business could flow to the University's 35 member colleges. In the first year the turnover for the colleges was £8.5m; in 2011-2012, for the same group of colleges that’s risen to £34.4m. That’s probably a fraction of the full picture, too, with repeat business often going directly to the colleges or being brought in unmediated by individual fellows.
“Conferences are the life-blood of academia,” points out Martin Jackson, Bursar of St Anne’s and Deputy Chairman of Conference Oxford. “We are a world-class university and a lot of our academics are at the forefront of their fields, so people turn to them to lead conferences, and there is a natural momentum. It is not just about making money, important though that is... Benefactors want their buildings made best use of and they also want the money they have given to grow.”
The benefits of all of this activity, of course, extend to college staff, who historically may have been laid off during the long vacation. Now, if anything, the dynamic has reversed. The term-time average of 17,000 meals a month served at St Anne’s leaps to a whopping 27,000 in July, for instance.
The conferences have also had a positive impact on the quality of Oxford’s student accommodation and college facilities. Douglas Bamber confirms that conference participants want character, but with mod cons; the treasured retainer wheezing up the stairs with a bowl of lukewarm water, attractive as that might once have been, no longer cuts the mustard. So the tower room over Merton Lodge is now an en-suite with a medieval staircase, and the new TS Eliot Theatre has been built with the acoustic needs of both the spoken word and music in mind. Whilst being turfed out at the end of term can be disruptive, it does at least mean that students only pay for their (top-notch) accommodation in term-time, making it significantly cheaper than renting private accommodation with a 12-month lease.
At New College, Bursar David Palfreyman has presided over the refurbishment of 20 staircases at a cost of £20m, enabling the college to offer 200 en-suite bedrooms to match the college’s dining capacity. He agrees that conferences are an important business and hankers after a plenary lecture theatre, urging any alumna or alumnus with a spare £4m to get in touch. In common with Christ Church and the Bodleian, he also supervises a little corner of Hogwarts and remembers fondly the college’s moments of silver screen stardom.
In Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire, Draco Malfoy was of course transformed into a ferret by Madeye Moody beneath the impressive holm oak in the college’s cloister. The ferret even enjoyed its own top-of-the-range serviced accommodation. “An EU working time directive meant that there had to be two ferrets, one working and one resting,” explains Palfreyman. “The resting ferret was provided with a van and its own veterinary nurse.”
In common with most but not all Oxford colleges, New College welcomes tourist groups. Palfreyman explains that this is part of the college’s contribution to civilisation and culture. “We are privileged as custodians of this historical heritage and it is our duty to make it accessible,” he explains, adding that he doesn’t find the tourists disruptive. The college charges during the summer to limit numbers and makes a “useful surplus” of around £60k — “enough to pay for a junior research fellow or some port, whichever is more important,” he notes, with a grin.
At Christ Church, Harry Potter competes with Alice in Wonderland to make a surplus for which the description “useful” would be a ludicrous understatement. The college last year employed 25 custodians to look after the approximately 400,000 tourists who passed through. At £7 for a full adult ticket and £5.50 for concessions, this represents additional annual income in the millions. The college now runs its own Behind the Scenes Tours with bowler-hatted guides, and holds regular Mad Hatter’s Tea Parties with tickets at £25 per head or £35 including Champagne. It also hosts the Oxford Literary Festival.
So how does this sit with undergraduates cramming for their finals? Remarkably, according to Ely Sandler, a second year PPE student at Christ Church, it doesn’t present much of a problem. The main consequence, it seems, is that students are sometimes stopped on their way to the hall by custodians who mistakenly identify them as tourists.
The Bodleian Library has also remained well aware of its heritage throughout its current refurbishment programme. The Weston Library, as the New Bodleian will become known when it re-opens in 2015, will have a permanent public display of treasures, regular temporary exhibitions, a shop and even a café. Since 1987, the Bodleian has run its own tours and now has 41 volunteer guides, with 40,000 individual tickets sold in the last financial year. Suzanne de la Rosa, Head of Communications, confirms that “one of the Library’s strategic objectives is to engage widely with the public, fostering greater awareness of the Library’s history and its collections.”
But not everyone is happy. Brigid Allen prompted a lively meeting of Congregation with her Oxford Magazine article The Great Oxford Library Disaster (2005, reprinted 2012), where she complained about guided tours “impinging on readers’ peace”, feared that Duke Humphrey’s was turning into a “tourist museum” and raised concerns suggesting the Radcliffe Camera would soon become a visitor centre.
Is the University getting the balance right? Certainly, it has taken charge and a new professionalism is in evidence both in the most visited colleges and in the University buildings which are open to the public. As far as the tourist hordes are concerned, the University of Oxford Information Officer gives an annual briefing to members of the Oxford Guild of Guides, to ensure that the information they give is as accurate and up-to-date as possible. The guides are in regular contact with college staff and are trained in group management as well as factual knowledge, helping to ensure the minimum of disruption. Whilst some might consider any tourism an invasion of academic peace, it is surely better to manage tourists proactively than to deny their presence. It is a major opportunity to garner global support for the University, which like it or not is now also a brand.
The University recognised as much when, in 1991, it established Oxford Limited to run retail and licensing programmes on its behalf and set up its own shop on the High Street. In 2010-2011, its income surpassed £1.5m. It now has agents world-wide, and Oxford University gives its name to everything from sweatshirts to furniture and even two university tartans.
Of course, the real genius of the founding fathers of the University of Oxford was in their choice of location. Oxford lies but a punt’s width from Bicester Village, a sprawling retail outlet selling discounted designer labels by the bucketload. Seen by some as a blot on the landscape and frequently responsible for miles long tailbacks on the A34, Bicester Village was visited by over 5.8m visitors in 2011 and this shopping mecca, as Bamber confirms, is a fixture that no Chinese conference participant will be denied.
Scholarship is a serious business — but not nearly as serious as buying Calvin Klein at knock-down prices.