Damien Shannon, a postgraduate rejected by St Hugh’s, is attempting to sue on the grounds of “selecting by wealth.” He claims that the College’s refusal to admit him, after he failed to demonstrate the ability to provide £12,900 for living costs, contravenes his human rights.
He cites Article 2 of Protocol Number 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights, claiming it guarantees a right to higher education. The exact wording of the Article is: “No person shall be denied the right to education.”
The case was presided over by Judge Armitage QC at Manchester County Court, which began on Friday 15th February, but he has reserved judgement until an unspecified date.
On Tuesday, Jane Elizabeth Sherwood, Director of Postgraduate Admissions at the University of Oxford, had to apologise after she inaccurately stated that other universities also used so-called “wealth tests”.
Mr Shannon clarified his stance in an article for The Guardian website on 21st January. He emphasised how he took issue at the specific amount of money required as a guarantee by the College: “It is crucial to point out that it is not necessarily unlawful to select on the basis of financial criteria, providing there is an objective and reasonable justification for doing so and that the means employed are proportionate.
“My primary argument before the court is that it cannot be considered proportionate to refuse access to those who cannot afford to socialise or dine in college, or live in a room of a particular size and cost.”
Mr Shannon, 26, of Salford, was offered a place at St Hugh’s to read for an MSc in Economic and Social History. Having fulfilled the academic requirements for the course, he was then prevented from taking up his place because he could not prove that he could provide £12,900 in addition to his tuition fees to cover his living costs.
This includes costs of eating in hall, socialising and buying clothes, and a fixed amount of rent at £7,250, even though Mr Shannon claims he negotiated a contract costing less than this.
As a result he accuses St Hugh’s of discriminating against less wealthy students who cannot afford to eat and socialise in college.
Other Oxford postgraduates echoed Shannon’s concerns, emphasising the difficulties they had in getting funding. One student studying for a DPhil in English at St John’s said: “My family are a low income one, so the necessity from Oxford / Cambridge to provide financial guarantee in June always proves a problem – mainly because, very often, people like me obtain funding at the very last minute through charities or AHRC [Arts and Humanities Research Council] reserve lists because people do drop out.”
She also questioned the usefulness of the guarantee: “People do still, of course, run out of money even if they’ve secured funding – simply because their project takes longer than planned – so a financial guarantee is somewhat meaningless in that sense.”
Another student studying for a DPhil in Chemistry said how she thought it was “quite a lot easier for internal candidates as they can speak to the professors about the process. It also cost £50 to apply, which I thought was quite cheeky.”
She added: “St John’s required me to prove how I would manage to pay for myself for the next four years. You also had to fill in a ridiculous form stating the exact amount of money you would need for the four years, which was stupid because College and University fees change yearly so it was all just a guesstimation really, and then show you had the money to cover that amount.”
Shannon’s MP, Hazel Blears, Member for Salford and Eccles, has taken up his case with enthusiasm, commenting to The Oxford Student: “I’m pleased that the judge is giving Damien Shannon’s claim the serious consideration it deserves.
“Nobody should be prevented from continuing their education on the basis of wealth. Not only is that deeply unfair, it means the talent of some of our brightest people may not be fully realised and our country and economy will miss out. If a student is deemed intelligent enough to study at Oxford they are surely capable of budgeting to live within their means.
“It is ludicrous that St Hugh’s expects postgraduate students to have money set aside to go to the cinema and nightclubs, and for ‘entertaining’.”
When asked what changes she would like to see in postgraduate funding, Blears said: “I would like to see Oxford do more to support students from poorer backgrounds, but I also believe we need a proper system of financial support and loans for postgraduate education.”
St Hugh’s College and David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science, declined to comment.