Colleges are giving away close to £150,000 a year in travel grants but have no way of monitoring how the money is being used.
A Cherwell investigation has revealed that colleges are failing to check how recipients are using the funds, and in many cases, students are not being required to provide ticket receipts or reports on their return. This has lead to many students taking their grants and using them for leisure, rather than for academic purposes.
Some students have admitted to keeping money intended for travel for academic study, or using it to go clubbing, or even to buy drugs.
One student, who wished to remain anonymous, admitted that he’d used money intended for a visit to a Middle Eastern archive to go to the Exit Festival in Serbia.
He said, “I knew college wouldn’t check up so I said I wanted to do some research in Turkey, but really I just went to Exit music festival and then travelled round for a bit.”
The undergraduate also admitted that he used some of the travel grant money to buy drugs. Another student, a graduate, invented a conference in Hawaii and instead used the money to visit the country and go surfing.
Most colleges give out around £5,000 a year in travel grants. Merton distributes £5,000 annually, while Wadham makes almost £7,500 available. In total, almost £150,000 is available every year from Oxford colleges and University travel grants.
A second year from Pembroke said that the system was being abused by some students. She said, “I know of one linguist who applied for funding to travel throughout Europe. They never went, however, and simply kept the money.”
She added that she didn’t see the problem as one that was “widespread” but that whilst there were some students who were honest about their travel grants, “the college has no way of checking to see if people are effectively stealing from them.”
Furthermore, where students have been honest about possible misuses of their grant, college authorities have displayed a lack of concern.
Rosy Gibson, a second year History of Art student at Christ Church, was awarded £150. She was told, “You must write a report or the money will be taken back from you,” but on her return, the college failed to contact her when she did not meet the requirement.
This lack of concern for the use of college money appears to be part of a trend across the University, with multiple students confessing to lying in order to get bankrolled by College to go abroad.
Caitlin O’Keeffe, a student at Wadham, claimed £200 for a trip to Edinburgh in order to perform there with comic group The Oxford Revue. She said, “I expected to get an email from the college the following term, asking for a report or even receipts, but I heard nothing.”
A second year at Exeter identified students studying modern languages as “finding it particularly easy to get small grants of between £100 and £200.” Under the pretext of going to the country which speaks the language they’re studying, the student suggested that they “do whatever they like – there is no suggestion of accountability.”
The same student also spoke about a woman from his college who cancelled a grammar course in Europe after receiving a small travel award. Although she approached the college authorities over the possibility of returning the money, she was told that she could keep it.
However, all the colleges contacted were keen to stress that they did monitor how students spent the money. Jane Nelson, the Censor’s Administrator at Christ Church, said: “On return, [students] must provide receipts to prove how the money has been spent… we always ask for tickets, or ticket receipts at least.”
Yet when Christ Church were confronted with the examples of students who had wasted their travel grant money, they admitted that “it may be that on occasion some applications have not been followed up.” Exeter’s Academic Administrator, Joan Himpson, declined to give details of any requirements that are made of its students, either before or after the grants are made.
At University level, the Oxford Society, the official alumni organisation, is responsible for granting individual travel awards. A spokesperson for the University Press Office said, “To be eligible, students have to prove that they are travelling independently and need to demonstrate that their trip will help their personal development.” They continued, “Applicants have to provide a report after the trip about what they did and what they achieved.”
Yet in a letter from his local branch of the Oxford University Society, one second year historian was simply told that he “may write a report for presentation at the branch’s annual general meeting.” No receipts or tickets were required.
Cathy Spinage, Head of the Benefits and Services department of Oxford University, said, “If students started to abuse [funding] it would undermine the whole system, and the Society might have to consider withdrawing the money from the travel award scheme.”