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By Jonathan Tomlin
Concerns have been raised about one of Oxford’s flagship funding programmes after a motion was passed at Trinity to levy annual student contributions.
The college’s JCR and MCR have both voted to impose the annual £7.50 levy to contribute towards an Oxford Reach scholarship for a talented Sri Lankan Physics undergraduate.
The scholarship allows people from “low income countries” to study at Oxford and covers tuition fees, living costs and one return airfare each year. The student has already been offered a place at Trinity.
The scholarship was introduced in 1990 but only a handful of colleges have Reach students at any one time. Trinity does not currently have a Reach student.
In order for the package to be awarded, the student body, including the JCR, MCR and donations from benefactors, must raise at least half of the living cost element of the grant. In total an annual student body contribution of £4,837.50 is required.
Without the Reach scholarship, which has been awarded over 40 times since 1990, the student would not be able to come to Oxford. The University contributes 60 percent of tuition fees, while the College provides the remainder as well as up to half of the living grant.
A motion was put forward during last Sunday’s JCR meeting to impose a yearly levy on students, which individuals will be able to opt out of, to raise £2,837.50 between the JCR and the MCR. The remainder of the student body funds will be raised from benefactors’ donations.
However, concerns were raised that knowing the person who was being funded could cause difficulties if the student was not seen to be “working hard enough” or “going out too much”.
But Beatrice Graham, the JCR President, said that the student would not have to “justify their actions to their peers”, but admitted that, “knowing the atmosphere of the JCR”, the undergraduate body would probably be “uncomfortable”.
A proposal to fund the scholarship out of the JCR’s existing funds was deemed unfeasible.
Concerns were also raised that if many students opted out, the levy might be increased for those remaining in the scheme. However, Graham said that the “College would look into further alumni donations to help support us so that the donation would never be more than £7.50”.
The motion had to be amended after it was noted that the levy was not fixed for the duration of the student’s course. As a result, funding would not have been secured for future years. The rules of the scheme state: “College JCRs are asked to commit to this funding for the length of the student’s course.”
One student suggested that the JCR should send a letter to the scheme’s organisers to express the student body’s concerns at the concept of automatically payable contributions.
Fellows said that the student’s application was one of the “most impressive” they had ever seen and that he had an exceptionally high PAT (Physics Aptitude Test) score.
After a long debate the motion was eventually passed 38-3 with two abstentions. The MCR has since passed the same motion. Anna Regoutz, the MCR President, said: “As Trinity College has a small student body the support of the MCR for this cause was necessary to cover the funding.
“Through the whole process the MCR has been in close contact with the JCR and the College to make it possible to welcome a Reach scholar at Trinity next year.”
Fergus Colquhoun, the JCR Treasurer, said he was “confident the scheme will be successful” and called the debate “peaceable”.
He added: “There was very little argument at all during the debate: our members recognised this as a good scheme, and so most of the questions that were asked of me were clarifications regarding exactly what the scholarship would involve rather than points made to be debated.
“The amendment was tabled due to the desire of the JCR to ensure that the scholar’s funding is secured for the duration of his time at Oxford – it simply corrected a minor omission in the original motion.”
He said he believed that “full funding has now been secured for this student”. Colquhoun added that he was “most grateful” to the MCR and benefactors for “reduc[ing] the burden on the JCR”.
He continued: “I would be astonished if large numbers of students opted out of it, given that this is so clearly a good cause”, pointing out that “very few choose to opt out” of the annual £10.00 charity levy in Michaelmas.
He admitted the potential problems of living with a student being funded by his peers, but said: “[The exec] have pointed this out to the College, which sympathises to an extent. However, that is the way that the scholarship works and there is not much that we can do about it.
“The Trinity JCR community is small and friendly by nature; our concerns with the slightly uncomfortable nature of the scholarship are more than outweighed by the fact that we are sure that the scholar will be made welcome and will be a valuable member of the College.”
Trinity student Sichen Wang said the fact that the funding would come from individual JCR members rather than the body as a whole was a concern in the meeting, since it might make things “more awkward for the Reach scholar in question”.
Wang added: “Ultimately, I think the concerns were less about the actual amount of the levy (which, as pointed out, is less than the punt levy or the cost of a guest night dinner) than it was about the premise itself. It’s a somewhat difficult topic and obviously we don’t know how future students will react, but since the motion passed with a very clear majority then I would take that as a fair indication of where Trinity’s JCR stands on the issue.”
Ben Kotas, a student at the College, said: “In principle it is a good idea, an opportunity for someone to study here who wouldn’t otherwise be able to. But I don’t think the JCR should be paying.”
He continued: “There was an impression at the meeting that College would be able to pick up any costs if the JCR fell short, or if too many opted out.
“The problem of awkwardness is especially difficult because it’s living costs, as opposed to something like tuition fees. It will also be awkward for college if he turns out not to do well in exams.”
Trinity College was not available for comment.