Postgraduate applicant sues St Hugh’s

A postgraduate applicant has filed court papers against St Hugh’s College for refusing to let him take up a conditional offer on grounds that he did not meet minimum funding requirements.

In allegations reported in the Observer, Damien Shannon, 26, accused the college of imposing financial conditions such that students are selected “on the basis of wealth, [excluding] those not in possession of it”.

It stated that Shannon argued that those without access to savings are “disproportionately discriminated against”. His claim will have its first hearing at Manchester County Court in February.

All postgraduate applicants to Oxford are required to demonstrate that in addition to their tuition fee, they can meet recommended living costs. This is currently set at £12,900 under the ‘financial guarantee’ that was agreed in 2010.

Shannon was awarded a place to read for an MSc in economic and social history in 2012/3, satisfying the academic requirement with a 2:1 degree from the Open University.

However, St Hugh’s asked him to show he had “resources totalling £21,082”. He could not meet this financial requirement, in spite of a £10,000 professional career development loan he obtained from the Co-operative Bank, which covered the cost of a £5,650 course fee plus a £2,532 college fee, but not the £12,900 advised for accommodation, utility, and general living purposes.

Speaking to Cherwell, Shannon maintained, “I have only objected to the living costs element of the financial guarantee, and have explicitly acknowledged the College’s right to ensure fees can be paid.” Shannon has not sought damages from the college.

He believed the college was in contravention of his human rights, declaring, “The right of access to Higher Education has been recognised by the European Court of Human Rights to be a civil right within the meaning of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

“I am demanding lawful treatment, not special treatment.”

According to the Observer, St Hugh’s denies the claim, though it does not deny that Shannon was turned down on financial grounds. It will argue that the financial assessment guards a student’s wellbeing so that there is no risk of academic focus being distracted by money worries.

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Similarly, Oxford University said, “We consider a financial guarantee preferable for individual students’ welfare, as it prevents drop-outs and disruption part way through a course.”

A spokesperson for St Hugh’s said, “Oxford University’s requirement that postgraduate students provide a financial guarantee in order to take up their course place is made clear to potential applicants. The College has made fundraising for postgraduate scholarships a key priority.”

Shannon expressed scepticism at Oxford’s access efforts at postgraduate level. He remarked, “A student who is made an offer of study on their first undergraduate course in accordance with their examination results is able to draw on state-funded systems of support – such a system does not exist for postgraduates.”

The University however insisted it is “vocal” that postgraduate admissions be “truly needs-blind”, saying, “[Oxford] works very hard to make progress towards this aim, both by fundraising and by lobbying the government to enact measures such that graduates too have access to loans, ensuring postgraduate study is a possibility for all. We already offer more postgraduate financial support than most other UK universities. Our aim is to offer support right across the board.”

According to the University’s website, Shannon would have been eligible for only one scholarship programme, the Clarendon Fund Scholarships. These are assessed on “best past and proven potential” and automatically granted to 3% of graduate offer holders – mostly PhD students.

Shannon is seeking three orders to be given from the courts, involving the removal of Oxford University’s ‘financial guarantee’ on living costs and “a mandatory order that I be re-offered my place”. Counsel’s fees during the trial are expected to run to £25,000 over two days alone.

He has the support of his local MP in Salford, former Labour Cabinet minister Hazel Blears, who is currently chairwoman of the all-party parliamentary group on social mobility.

The applicant’s actions come in the same month in which the postgraduate funding crisis was reported to be getting worse across UK universities in the face of continued fee increases.

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St Hugh’s MCR President Thomas Liefländer lamented financial limitations on academically able graduates, telling Cherwell, “This case highlights that increasing the under-developed funding opportunities for graduates must be one of the University’s top priorities for the next years.”

Third-year undergraduate Sinead Doyle O’Neill found the criticism of her college in particular “unfortunate”. However, she said, “Oxford is ‘making efforts’ to be more accommodating to people from less affluent backgrounds, but this case shows where they could be making strides.

“Ultimately, this person was accepted to Oxford – an academic institution – based on his academic merit. In my view, this is sufficient, and my college’s demand for instant gratification has caused them to lose out on talent.”

William Golightly, St Hugh’s access and academic officer, commented, “I think it’s important we appreciate that the College has limited places and a limited reservoir of resources to support either graduates or undergraduates. As such I respect the college’s right to exercise discretion in best placing its resources.

“However I sympathise greatly with these grievances, and hopefully the case will spur the University on to reform its admissions system, as it regularly does. All institutions, Oxford no exception, have imperfections. This is not a case of social elitism, neither is it an issue exclusive to St Hugh’s, but is an Oxford-wide issue of financial constraints.”

OUSU President and former St John’s MCR President David J. Townsend said, “Financial access to postgraduate study at Oxford is a particular concern for OUSU, and we’ve made sure that it is a particular concern for the University too. The University launched a £100m matched-funding postgraduate scholarships scheme in October, but even with these successes, it will be a while before all postgraduates will be able to come here without having to seek private funds.

“Any financial guarantee system must therefore be run in as fair a manner as possible. OUSU recently raised concerns with the University over the ineligibility of predicted income and we will watch Damien’s case with interest.”