Dec 1, 2019

As Stanford invents the future, our dreaming spires still slumber

written by Lisa Eason

In wealthy countries such as Britain, the elite spend an extraordinary amount of time and money trying to get their children into the best universities. There is a generally accepted belief that a degree from one of the world’s finest higher education institutions represents a passport to a successful career and a life of accomplishment.

In Britain, this means sending sons and daughters to study at either Oxford or Cambridge, which have arguably dominated academia and our intellectual culture for centuries. They are certainly considered outstanding: they come first and second, respectively, in the 2019 World University Rankings. In what other important aspect of society does Britain take both of the top two positions?

I should declare an interest: I’m the beneficiary of an Oxford education. I feel very lucky to have spent three years studying as an undergraduate there, with its close tutorial supervision, the spectacular surroundings, the fantastic reputation. But the prestige that Oxbridge bestows on those who graduate from either university brings disadvantages to society: this duopoly overshadows rivals and feeds a great national weakness — snobbery.

Moreover, while my alma mater is regarded as pre-eminent in terms of scholarship, it has profoundly failed in other aspects. The third highest-ranked institution in the rankings is Stanford. This Californian university was founded almost 800 years after Oxford, and until the 1950s was regarded as a second-rate engineering college, but in the past few decades it has soared. Some members of its faculty discovered entrepreneurship and commercial technology — and, in essence, Stanford co-invented Silicon Valley, which became the greatest centre of industrial invention in history.

Where is Oxford’s Silicon Valley?

Two recent books — Troublemakers by Leslie Berlin and Valley of Genius by Adam Fisher — describe the history of Silicon Valley. Each credits Stanford with playing a pivotal role in the genesis of the northern Californian innovation boom. The first technology campus, Stanford Research Park, was sponsored by the university, and early tech pioneers such as Lockheed, Fairchild, Xerox and General Electric opened facilities there. Frederick Terman, a Stanford professor, encouraged two graduates to start the founding parent of Silicon Valley, Hewlett-Packard (HP). Stanford and Silicon Valley have had a symbiotic relationship from the beginning.

So many vital industries of the past 50 years were developed in this remarkable innovation hub: personal computing, semiconductors, biotechnology, venture capital, the internet and video games, among others. Within a 30-mile radius of Stanford, the future was invented. According to a 2011 survey of alumni, companies set up by Stanford graduates had generated more than $2.7 trillion in revenue and created 5.4m jobs. These businesses included Google, Nike, HP, Cisco, Yahoo, Gap and Intuit.

This achievement owes much to Stanford’s willingness to encourage entrepreneurship among its students and faculty, and to commercialise its research. Without Stanford and Silicon Valley, would the US have the technology lead and standard of living it currently enjoys?

I wish Oxford had exhibited a fraction of this world-beating enthusiasm for business and technology transfer, and not been stuck in an entitled time warp — an extreme case of a complacent organisation resting on its laurels rather than embracing the future. Oxford accepts just 33 students every year to study computer science — fewer than a third of the number who study classics. Ten times that number graduate with computer science as their major from Stanford. In this country, we seem to value dead languages more than technical progress.

Oxford has a huge public duty to enrich the nation and be at the cutting edge of progress and useful research. Unfortunately, it has been captured by its faculty and resists change. Many colleges are run by left-leaning heads who probably feel that business and technology are too grubby for ancient seats of learning; of the 40-odd Oxford colleges, just four are run by scientists.

Oxford is in dereliction of its duties towards the nation. It has failed to exploit its intellectual property and unique cultural influence to boost enterprise and technical knowledge transfer. It claims its economic impact is worth £5.8bn, but this contribution is not ambitious enough. Britain boasts the world’s two best universities — so they should be the world’s most powerful engines for economic and technical progress. In this they woefully underperform, and in particular I would say to Oxford: must do better.