We should always commend generosity, especially when the cheque comes with so many zeros. Oxford will now extend its lead amongst UK universities in financial undergraduate support – clearly that is a good thing.
It is also a spectacular philanthropic waste. Remember, students are not expected to pay any of their tuition up front and the loan is repayable only from taxable income which they might subsequently earn. The purpose for which Michael Moritz has earmarked his donation, to massively increase bursaries to low-income undergrads, is therefore wrong-headed. It is akin to stumbling into Goldman Sachs and randomly distributing cash. Once the student from Bog Standard Comprehensive is at Oxford, he or she has roughly the same chance as an Old Etonian of becoming successful. Oxford’s core problem is that they are less likely to get there in the first place; tragically few are able to break the shackles of a deprived socio-economic background. This donation does absolutely nothing to solve that, doing precisely nothing for social mobility. Rather than turbo-charging efforts to get low-income students into Oxford, £300 million will be spent mollycoddling those who are already here.
There is an argument that by driving student costs down, Oxford can vanquish fears that poorer kids have about the huge student debts they will amass. In this way more will apply. Unfortunately the evidence that they were being put off lies somewhere between sketchy and non-existent. The socio-economic mix of applicants for 2012 entry, under the higher fees regime, was almost identical to the previous year.
What was Moritz’ aim? Presumably to encourage and enable the underprivileged to aspire to Oxford. Why then didn’t he donate his millions to the Sutton Trust, which takes young people from failing schools and prepares them for the rigours of university life? Or why didn’t he elect to benefact Oxford’s outreach programme which, through its excellent work dispelling the many myths about our ancient institution, encourages applicants from diverse backgrounds?
To reiterate, it’s lovely that students with limited means will get more. We all have friends in college whose lives will be made easier by Moritz’ extraordinary gift. Think though what else could have been done with £300 million. Big donations like that only come along once in a generation and through misdirecting the money, Michael Moritz and the University have scuppered the chance to redress the inter-generational problem of social immobility. I’m alluding to the concept of ‘opportunity cost’; could something bigger and better have been achieved with the money? The answer is an emphatic yes.