Oxbridge going private would say goodbye to diversity

Copying the American university structure will take improving access off the agenda and polarise students

The Widener Library at Harvard (Flickr)

I can see why privatisation is attractive to a university; maintaining high quality research, education, and indeed beautiful buildings is not cheap. Private American universities are managing more easily that the British: Harvard is around ten times wealthier than Oxford. Along with a number of other prestigious private universities in America, Harvard offers needs-blind admissions testing, and claims to never turn away a student because they can’t pay the fees. Those theorising that Oxbridge might go private have attempted to reassure by claiming that ‘perhaps just one third might pay the actual sticker price’.

Ostensibly, it sounds like it could be beneficial – Oxford would be able to offer funding to high-level applicants and sustain itself on its own values. But being ‘private’ is about more than just money though – it is a beacon of elitism. We may end up back at square one when it comes to achieving a diverse student body, one that allows the best students to attend. Just because a student could receive bursaries to allow them to attend Oxford for free, it doesn’t mean there aren’t other concerns. The private system may deter students from backgrounds who fear the elitism associated with private schooling and the imposter syndrome that follows. Equally, it’d be hard to tell what impact means-tested fees would have on the dynamic of student bodies. A student paying less may not feel as comfortable asking for as much as those who pay more. Who knows what the impact would be on accessibility and diversity? After privatisation, would Oxford still have the incentive to spend as much money and effort on reaching out to poorer students in society? If they really intended to pursue a means tested route, in order to satisfy bursary costs, the demographic Oxford would actually need to attract would be richer students who can actually afford the fees. Furthermore, being less regulated will not be conducive to holding universities accountable for how they treatment working class, BAME, LGBTQ+, or disabled students.

It is not even just those from the poorest, or the most underrepresented backgrounds who would be significantly affected. Currently, with student maintenance loans, students from lower income backgrounds can be entitled to greater loans, but tuition fees are the same for all students – albeit, mostly paid through student loans. The students, ourselves, are the ones responsible for paying back the student loans once we graduate. If you are from a family who earn a sufficient amount to qualify into the ‘third’ paying full private fees but who aren’t at the top level of wealth, then you may also be penalized. There is a big difference between your family helping to support you financially for maintenance and having to fork out thousands of pounds (or take out a massive private loan) to pay for your tuition – as is generally done in America. I, as an adult, believe that it is my responsibility to pay for my tuition to attend university. As such, many students would be forced to take out large private loans if they want to pursue their intended line of study, or choose to follow a more secure career path because they actually can’t afford to risk the large cost of a less vocational degree (RIP the arts).

Oxbridge would regress to the old stereotypes that people have worked so hard to start tackling, namely, that they are universities only for the wealthy and privileged. If you can’t guarantee a job leaving university, it is a massive risk to then be faced with the option of having even greater debts from private loans than those we gain from our student loans currently. In my case, I worry for the subjects in industries where you are less likely to earn a high salary. As a music student, I am considering options in careers such as academia and performance but despite my passions for them, it would be unlikely for me to earn a substantial enough amount to ever be able to pay back large private loans. Ultimately, universities like Yale and Harvard may have a good reputation for inclusivity in admissions, but it is no secret that the offspring of wealthy alumni and donors are cherry-picked and favoured in order to keep the steady flow of funding.

According to the National Student Money Survey 2017, 84% students worry about making ends meet and 50% actively find that worrying about finances has an impact on their mental health. Ultimately, the decision for privatization would aggravate current concerns – some students would end up having to struggle to pay more or forfeit a university experience. Perhaps the disparity of wealth would create even greater polarisation between students, dividing them into a binary of those who benefit from the means-tested tuition rates and those who are there to fulfill the vast cost of private fees. Although perhaps the worst aspect is not knowing what the full effects would be and how significantly damaged the aim of creating opportunity for all in higher level education would be. Ideological as it sounds, if we want to be able to maintain flourishing institutions of education, we need to be able to build a university environment at Oxford where the most talented students are able to study without the uncertainty of the financial burden that may result.