The University of Oxford is preparing to take a firm stand, following an interview with the BBC in which Nick Clegg stated that it is “not up to them [universities]” to decide whether they can charge the maximum tuition fees of £9,000 a year.
It was reported that a recent meeting of the Oxford Congregation, the university’s parliament, had “set a tone of defiance” after discussing of Clegg’s claims. Of particular controversy was the suggestion that universities such as Oxford should lower their entrance requirements, to increase the number of state school entrants.
Tim Gardam, the St. Anne’s College Principal, said, “Oxford should resist any idea that there should be some trade-off between the setting of an undergraduate tuition fee and our agreement to conditions aimed at socially defined outcomes that are not rooted in independent academic judgment.”
The disagreement arose after Oxford joined the growing group of universities which have decided to charge the maximum tuition fees of £9,000 under the government’s new University funding scheme. Clegg claimed in December that it would be “an exception for universities to charge the maximum amount”.
During the recent BBC interview, Clegg appeared defensive, stating, “they can say what they like….they’re only going to be given permission to [charge £9,000] if they can prove that they can dramatically increase the number of people from poorer and disadvantaged backgrounds”.
These remarks were described by one Oxford academic as “bollocks”.
Many Oxford students were also “furious” at Clegg’s proposals. Stephen Bush, a former Chair of Oxford University Labour Club, commented, “If Nick Clegg was really serious about increasing the number of state school pupils at Oxford, then he wouldn’t be supporting a government that is abolishing schools building, reducing spending to the most deprived schools, and abolishing EMA.”
Ed Knight, a student at Keble, agreed with many of the academics that “Oxford must not lower its academic standards due to the inequities of the English education system, but must nonetheless take into account the serious advantage which most privately educated students have.”
On revealing that it would be charging £9,000 tuition fees to most students, Oxford also announced a package of bursaries and fee waivers targeted at students from lower income backgrounds. The Vice-Chancellor stated in his termly message that the government “expects us to devote around 35 percent of additional income above £6,000 to student support and outreach, a figure that Oxford will exceed by a very wide margin.”
OUSU president David Barclay supported the university’s proposals, commenting, “Oxford will be the most generous University in the country in its offer to the poorest and most under-represented students”.
Over the past 10 years applications from state school students have risen by 73%, whilst there has only been a 31% rise in applications from privately educated students. In addition, Oxford is on course to admit its highest ever proportion of state school pupils this October, with just 41.5% of offers made to private school pupils. However, it remains the case that only 7% of students attend private schools.
The view that there is still a lot to be done to widen access at Oxford, and even to acquiesce to Clegg’s demands, was echoed by some academics. Dr Rowan Tomlinson, of New College, said, “The state school percentage, of which some of us seem bafflingly proud, is deceptive.
“We need to stop hoodwinking ourselves and others, and admit that many of those who make up the intake from state schools are actually from selective schools, which operate not through some kind of pure academic meritocracy but through social and cultural exclusion and elitism.”
A St. Peter’s student agreed, “Oxford loves to claim that they base everything purely on meritocracy and simply take the best applicants, regardless of social upbringing.”
He added, “We need to institute mechanisms, such as the affirmative action program suggested by Clegg, in order to re-balance society in light of the social barriers experienced by thousands of those who are less lucky by virtue of their social circumstances.”
However, a spokeswoman for Oxford University said that downgrading entrance requirements for disadvantaged students was unrealistic. She stated, “We are already turning down thousands of high-achieving students every year – 33,000 people a year get AAA at A-level and we only have 3,200 places.
“The priority has to be, therefore, to attract students from diverse backgrounds who are already getting top grades and give them good information about the selection process so they can show their full potential.”