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By Tom Rowley
The University has this week called on the government to scrap the top cap on tuition fees and allow Oxford to hike fees to plug the gap in its rapidly deteriorating finances.
The move could see Oxford charging undergraduates fees of up to £11,000 – to cover most of the so-called “tutorial gap” of £8,000 between current government income and the cost of undergraduate teaching. The University emphasised that some of the gap would be made up from other sources of income.
Student representatives have highlighted the negative effect they believe the plans would have on encouraging students from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply to Oxford, saying it would “risk undermining decades of work” to improve access.
Describing an expensive Oxford education as “a risk” for students to take, University officials have outlined proposals to postpone fee repayments until Oxford graduates reach a certain income threshold – or even write them off if their careers are thought “socially useful”.
The proposals, which would boost University coffers, come weeks after Finance Director Giles Kerr painted a depressing picture of Oxford’s finances, revealing he was budgeting for five years of cuts following the £6m already slashed from the budget by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
Under the proposals, submitted to the government review on higher education funding chaired by former BP boss Lord Browne, universities across the country would be free to charge what they like to undergraduates, who currently pay Oxford the statutory maximum fee of £3,290.
Oxford University seeks freedom to set fees
Ushering us in to quiz the University’s top officials on their proposals to scrap the top cap on tuition fees entirely, press officers checked twice that we would not publish the material until today. They were clearly aware that whatever Oxford says on this highly contentious issue will be seized upon by supporters and critics of a market in higher education.
But now the embargo has been lifted and the University’s position could not be clearer: it wants to be able to charge the tuition fees it chooses – and the sooner the better.
As Oxford struggles to cope with swingeing cuts to its block grants from government that are set to continue for years to come, higher fees would form part of a series of “coping strategies” to balance its books.
But worried students have raised concerns about the effect that hiking fees would have on access to the University, suggesting it could entrench Oxford as a university for the rich.
Bankers need not apply
Oxford has set out plans to fundraise to offset the fee repayments of students who go on to work in professions that the University deems to be “socially useful”.
In a scheme that could see social workers applauded but budding bankers stigmatised, University officials would ask donors to write off the fees of relatively low-earning professionals whose work contributed to society. Even so, no fees would be paid back until the graduate was earning above £15,000, if the University’s proposals are implemented.
A University spokesperson said: “You go out to donors and alumni and say will you support a pot of money for, say, social workers, and they would support that and the idea would be that the University would use that funding to then write off fees for people who went into those particular professions.”
In a press briefing to launch Oxford’s second submission to the Browne Review earlier this week, the University’s Head of Planning and
Resource Allocation, Lesley Sims, outlined her vision for the socially useful fee write-off.
Sims said: “It’s one thing to say that yes if you go to Oxford or Cambridge you come out with a higher average salary, that’s a good thing, but it’s not all of it because we actually want people to go into the intrinsically worthwhile stuff: the teachers and the social workers and the people who make the world go round.
“What you’d do is to allow the donors to decide, so I’m sure that a lot of journalists would think that they’re socially useful and they’d contribute to their successors.”
Though the University emphasised that the plans are in embryonic stage, students have raised concerns that they could prove unworkable.
OUSU Vice-President Jonny Medland said that the student union’s proposed graduate tax – making all graduates pay for higher education on a progressive scale, increasing as their income rises – would achieve this aim better.
“Forgiving fees on the basis of what careers people go into is a poorly thought-out way of reducing the impact of variable fees. If Oxford wants to remove the necessity for students to go into very high-paying jobs then they should sign onto our proposals and accept that graduates should pay for their education on the basis of how much they benefit from it,” he said.
Concerned students have raised fears that the University’s plans could accentuate negative stereotypes of Oxford and discourage applications from disadvantaged students worried about re-paying higher tuition fees than at other universities.
The University’s submission was released on the same day as the latest report from the Office for Fair Access showed that the wealthiest students are seven times more likely to get places at England’s top universities than the most disadvantaged.
OUSU said that the measures, if implemented, would discourage potential applicants from poorer backgrounds.
Medland said: “The University’s submission risks undermining decades of work to improve access to Oxford. Placing a high headline figure on the value of an Oxford education will put students off applying here unless they feel that they can afford it.
“Students shouldn’t be making decisions about their education on the basis of money and a truly variable fee-based system would place this aim in jeopardy.”
Sims admitted that the University has not in the past been good enough at communicating the message that its fees will only be repaid when a graduate can afford it.
She said: “I think we would say that the understanding of the system is simply not good enough and it’s one that we really have to work on…They [students] will say ‘is it worth me paying this? What do I get for it?’ And that’s what we need to make clear – what you get for it.”
Anthony Monaco, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Planning and Resource Allocation, agreed that selling the value of an Oxford education would be important in attracting students from all backgrounds.
“I also think that if we’re having an income-contingent repayment system, we actually have to show how an Oxford education benefits the individual. By showing those benefits, we can help people understand that it’s worth the risk of going to an institution that may have a higher variable fee,” he said.
University officials believe higher fees will allow Oxford to become more independent from government control.
Sims said: “We’d very much like to say that universities are not public sector, they are independent, autonomous charities and we feel that they should be allowed to function like that.”
But the University was at pains to emphasise that it has no specific level to which it would like to raise fees. It admitted that fees could rise further if the government cut more money from its higher education fund.
Monaco said: “At the same time the government is in the process of considering whether they’re going to cut further our tuition grant – it’s very hard, because it is also a moving target.”
Only one student, OUSU President Stefan Baskerville, was invited to sit on the committee, composed of delegates from the central University and its colleges, that drafted the two submissions to the Browne Review.
University officials insisted that this did not indicate that they were not consulting students.
Monaco said: “We took the views of the students very seriously in both groups and we debated some of the issues like the graduate tax versus deferred income. We discussed the advantages and disadvantages and came to a view that the University would like to propose. We understand that OUSU has a different view, but I don’t think these views are worlds apart.”
But OUSU Vice-President Jonny Medland seemed taken aback by this assertion, insisting that their proposals were very distinct from those submitted by the University.
He said: “I’m not sure how anyone could conclude that our proposals are similar to Oxford’s. We have argued that students should pay for their education in accordance with the benefit that they receive from it. Oxford is arguing that they should pay a fee dependent on which university they attend. These two arguments are fundamentally different.”