It’s not often that Education Guardian has something nice to say about Oxford. The O-word is usually whipped out to make a lazy jibe about dundering complacency and backward-facing movement, in contrast to both the material richness of the American universities and the worthy inclusiveness of the ex-polys.But this week, for once, figures released by the Office for Fair Access are cause for (restrained) self-congratulation in Wellington Square. Oxford was shown to have met its targets for bursary spending, one of only four universities to have done so. Cambridge took the brunt of the criticism in the media’s reporting of the figures, racking up the largest total underspend: £855,000, fifteen percent of its ear-marked budget.So Oxford’s achievement, of meeting its target by spending more than a third of its new income from top-up fees on student bursaries, is to be applauded.  In total the central University spent over £1.8m on student bursaries in 2006-07. If top-up fees continue to be used in this way—to tax those who can afford an education and subsidise those who can’t—they will be doing their job. Current first- and second-years might register a small comfort, as they slide £3,000 further into the red each year, from the knowledge that Oxford will spend over a grand of that on redistributive bursaries for fellow students.This presents a genuine opportunity for Oxford to shake off some of its remaining stigma that continues to stubbornly cling on. There is hard evidence of their commitment to widening access, and it must be used to show bright school children that they don’t just talk the talk. The Oxford Opportunity Bursaries have been been the subject of a significant publicity campaign, including adverts in national newspapers. This has clearly paid off in their relatively high take-up rate.
The University needs to take this momentum to drive the point home that an Oxford education is, at least for European nationals, no more expensive than any other university; indeed, it is very possibly cheaper. Offa’s figures do not take into account individual college spending on bursaries (which is largely responsible for decentralised Cambridge’s poor showing, before we descend into schadenfraude).Clearly there is still much work to be done, as shown by the annual battle over rent negotiation that is beginning in JCRs all over the city. But these figures reflect the University’s first stab at handling a new and difficult government policy and, with a bit of luck, they could mark a turning point in its reputation both in Oxford and beyond.