Published on October 25th, 2013 |
by Eleanor Newis
Image © View of the finish of the 2007 Oxford - Cambridge Boat Race, taken from Chiswick Bridge in London on April 7, 2007
Because what Oxford needs is a £16,000 price tag…
I am sighing heavily as I write this; there is so much in British politics, in current affairs, that I find interesting, enlightening and encouraging. This article is not about any of them. On Wednesday 9th October, the vice chancellor of the University of Oxford used his annual oration to float the generous idea that leading universities should be able to charge more than the current top £9000. He proposed £16,000; a figure he argues is the actual cost of educating a student at Oxford. Now, apart from this being debatable (I seriously doubt that my English degree, for example, is costing £16,000 a year – unless those overdue books are way more expensive than I guessed…), these remarks are damaging to the work done by so many to ensure our top universities don’t become the intellectual playground of the rich. This is a classic example of the “how do we fund education argument” being conducted in a way that is both insensitive and unfortunate. It is true that the cap on tuition fees means they won’t be in line with inflation and that government subsidy of universities has gone down since the fee rise, but this does not mean that we should begin to systematically undo all the work done to encourage student diversity.
In economic terms, Professor Hamilton’s argument holds up: the introduction of a market into higher education has not worked, as almost every university is charging the same fee, and Oxford has ended up losing about £70 million due to the lack of government subsidy. “The idea of a market – and that is ostensibly what is being created – in which every item, virtually regardless of quality, is the same price seems, well, a little odd.” Right, fine. “What matters surely is that an institution’s charges are clearly aligned with what it offers and that they are demonstrably not a barrier to student access.” Okay, fine. Well, actually no: not fine at all. Professor, a £16, 000 price tag is not just a way of filling a gap of “over £70 million a year that Oxford has to plug”, it is possibly the biggest “barrier to student access” apart from introducing mandatory tweed and having to provide documentation of an aristocratic family tree at the point of interview. And this is not because of economics; it is because, like many aspects of British policy, education is not debated in a transparent manner. It is debated in a political manner.
Of course, tuition fees are effectively a graduate tax: you don’t pay unless you earn a certain amount, and you pay bit by bit. It is not as simple as having a massive debt. And so, theoretically, students graduating from Oxford, Cambridge and other top universities will eventually earn more, and should be taxed accordingly. Understandable, no? But this is not how the government has presented its tuition fee policy: they have presented it as an attempt to privatise higher education, and introduce a market. Whether this is advisable is entirely another question, but the reality is that the UK now invests 1.4% of GDP in higher education, compared to the international average of 1.7% and we now have the most expensive university tuition fees in Europe. There is a tension here between the ideal education system and our country’s ability to pay for it; but the more important tension right now is the one between the political dialogue surrounding university finances and the October, the vice chancellor of the University of Oxford used his annual reality of encouraging access.
Oxford’s entry for 2012 saw 57.2% of students coming from state schools, and the university reaches 78% of UK schools and colleges with post-16 provision directly through outreach activities. So things are getting better: the student body is becoming much more even. Cambridge has done even better, with 63.3% of their 2012-13 entry being from state schools. Yet it is still difficult. I realise that anecdotal evidence is not particularly reliable, but I’m going to share anyway. I was the only person in my sixth form college to make it to Oxford in that year, and in fact was also one of five students to get into Oxford that year in my educational borough. Yes, borough. A grand total of five students from the borough of Dudley made it to Oxford that year; and trust me, it is not because there aren’t enough people with the potential. As harsh as the economic reality of higher education is, the reality of access and diversity is far harsher. We must solve the former without jeopardising the latter; through increased government subsidy, donations, fundraising or a combination of these. But, dear Professor Hamilton, the last thing we need to do is add a further £7000 onto the bill when teenagers are already being told by their friends, family and themselves that a top university is beyond them.