Come down from your ivory towers: Oxford should charge less, not more

Comments from Professor Andrew Hamilton, Oxford’s vice-chancellor, during his annual oration to the university this week, suggest that top institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge should be able to charge students fees closer to the £16,000 per year “real cost” of a world-class education.

First published in The Independent 9th October 2013

Comments from Professor Andrew Hamilton, Oxford’s vice-chancellor, during his annual oration to the university this week, suggest that top institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge should be able to charge students fees closer to the £16,000 per year “real cost” of a world-class education.

He argues that the introduction of £9,000 tuition fees has not been successful in creating a market within the higher education system because virtually every university is charging the highest price.

Hold on a second, Professor. Why, exactly, is the introduction of a market in higher education in any way desirable? Why should a higher standard of education be bought with higher tuition fees rather than attained by the brightest and best candidates simply because they are the most academically capable? The vice-chancellor’s comments mock the existence of a supposed meritocracy within our higher education system and cheapen the issue by making it about his university’s bottom line.According to Prof Hamilton, it’s not enough to be a top candidate, to have excellent results, an impressive personal statement, great references and an impeccable interview technique. You have to be prepared to dig yourself much, much deeper in debt with the Student Loans Company and rely on the generosity of financially comfortable parents to qualify for an Oxford education. The case brought against St. Hughes College Oxford by Damien Shannon, after he was instructed to prove that he had sufficient funds to cover tuition fees and living costs, provides a pertinent example of the university’s financially selective practices.Prof Hamilton’s plea to introduce fees higher than £9,000 for top institutions would not merely create a market between universities, it would also create a market between pupils. Candidates from disadvantaged areas, from failing schools and from working class backgrounds are already being discouraged from applying to university due to the hike in tuition fees. The substantially higher fees proposed by Prof Hamilton would represent a slammed door to working class candidates, despite his paying lip service to the issue by stating that “price can be no impediment to talent”. I’m not sure which ivory tower Prof Hamilton is currently residing in, but price IS an impediment to talent and to raise the cost of education will further discourage those from less advantageous backgrounds.

Out of 150 institutions surveyed in 2010, Oxford was found to have the lowest intake of pupils from working class backgrounds (11.5 per cent) in the Russell Group category, with Cambridge trailing a close second at 12.6 per cent. 2012 saw over 60 leading academics, including one from Oxford and another from Cambridge, sign a letter to Education Secretary Michael Gove to express their “continued opposition to a system which will increasingly exclude working class students and others from non-traditional backgrounds and promote higher education as a privilege”. Obstacles to candidates from working class backgrounds and deprived areas achieving the top grades needed to be able to apply for a place at Oxford or Cambridge are already so numerous that Hamilton’s call for tuitions fees closer to £16,000 seems crass in its flagrant elitism.

The annual shortfall of £70 million in teaching income that the vice-chancellor bemoans is not a burden that should be placed upon students. Prof Hamilton observes that “excellence in most walks of life does not come cheap” and while that may be true for the university itself, the excellence of candidates applying should have no price, cheap, expensive or otherwise. The curiosity, talent and intellectual potential of applicants should be currency enough to guarantee their places at top institutions. The lack of government funding available to higher education is the core of the issue and should not be addressed through further inflating fees and closing doors on pupils from poorer backgrounds. We need to forget markets and prioritise the availability of a high-quality education to high-achieving candidates who display potential, regardless of family incomes.

The Middle Class Bias at the Heart of Our Education System is Devastating

With another year’s A-Level results received and university places accepted, the idea that higher education is meant for all bright pupils, not simply those who can afford it, should not be a contentious one.

First published in The Independent 20th August 2013

With another year’s A-Level results received and university places accepted, the idea that higher education is meant for all bright pupils, not simply those who can afford it, should not be a contentious one. However, Professor Les Ebon, head of the Office of Fair Access, suggests that the undeniable middle-class bias in higher education is partly due to it being in the financial interest of universities to take on more students from middle-class backgrounds, because they have parents able to support them if they fall into financial difficulties and are therefore less likely to drop out. To me, this seems a potent illustration of the inequalities present in our education system and yet another disheartening obstruction to the educational attainment of pupils from less affluent backgrounds.

It is no secret that students who have attended schools in more deprived areas or who come from families without a tradition of higher education are at a disadvantage before they set foot upon a university campus. The number of students achieving As and A*s fell slightly this year from 26.6% to 26.3% but the proportion gaining top grades has been similarly high in recent years, suggesting that A-Level students must differentiate themselves in other ways when applying for competitive university places. The extra accomplishments that allow candidates to distinguish themselves tend to be the privilege of more middle-class students. If you come from a middle-class family, your parents are more likely to be able to afford music lessons or private tuition. If you go to a private or grammar school, or a high-performing comprehensive in a middle-class area, that school is more likely to be rich in resources and able to provide students with sporting opportunities and other extra-curricular activities.

Schools with a tradition of sending pupils to top universities will also be in the habit of offering greater support in the form of interview preparation and information about the kind of subject choices favoured by leading institutions. In 2010-11, a third of pupils from private schools went on to top universities and 2010 findings by the Sutton Trust indicate that private school pupils are 55 times more likely to go to Oxbridge than their state school counterparts. I refuse to believe that it is because students from poorly-performing comprehensive schools or cash-strapped backgrounds are ‘not as clever’. This is a case of financial segregation, occurring long before personal statements are penned.

The current government’s reforms will leave today’s graduates paying off around a crippling £60,000 in debts. With figures suggesting that one in ten graduates are jobless six months after leaving university and there are 4% fewer graduate jobs this year than in 2012, it is not as though employment is guaranteed for those with an increasingly expensive degree. These factors alone can discourage those from families in less financially advantageous positions from choosing a university education, despite being bright and able. Owen Jones, author of Chavs, goes on to describe the advantages middle-class graduates gain from their parents’ networks and contacts and how it is these graduates who can afford to work as unpaid interns when attempting to break into fields including journalism and politics.

Chancellor George Osborne has this year cut 10% from the student opportunity fund as part of his financial onslaught against the higher education sector, and this is simply not acceptable. This fund allows universities to meet some of the costs of attracting more students from diverse backgrounds, including what is spent on outreach programmes, and must be protected. The idea of Britain being a meritocracy where those who work hard are rewarded is questionable at best, as we all start from different places and under different circumstances. However, it is further undermined by the hike in tuition fees, universities’ view of middle-class students as a ‘safer bet’ and the subsequent bias against those from poorer backgrounds. Higher education should be available for every intelligent and aspirational student and I firmly believe that crude financial divisions should not prevent this from becoming a reality.