Oxford University’s Chancellor has fuelled the continuing debate over Oxbridge admissions by arguing for a complete removal of the cap on university tuition fees.
Speaking at the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference annual meeting on 30th September, Lord Patten called the government’s fee capping “intolerable” given the paucity of UK university endowments.
He said that the government should not demand that universities, “make up for the deficiencies of secondary education,” claiming this was “a fool’s mission.”
Un-capped fees could leave graduates with up to £50,000 of debt.
Patten argued, “it is surely a mad world in which parents or grandparents are prepared to shell out tens of thousands of pounds to put their children through private schools to get them in to universities, and then object to them paying a tuition fee of more than £3,000 when they are there.”
However, the university has distanced itself from Patten’s comments in official statements, saying that he had made the remarks purely in a personal capacity.
‘Oxford hasn’t made any decisions’
A press spokesperson said, “Oxford University hasn’t made any decisions” on the issue of fee capping and that a working group to discuss tuition fees policy is in “very early stages.”
John Denham, the former Secretary of State for Universities, has responded, accusing Lord Patten, of having “outmoded views of the central issues.”
Speaking at the Aimhiger Awards, a scheme which tries to widen access to higher education, Denham insisted that most universities now accept that, “the current system does not yet capture all the talent that exists in young people across the country.”
Paul Dwyer, OUSU VP for access and academic affairs, said that OUSU policy was against any lifting of the cap but recognised the need for “a contribution from graduates in some form.”
Concerning the question of the university’s role in correcting inequality, he said that “education is an extremely important tool” for social equality but added that the burden of responsibility “should not lie solely with the university.”
He said that, although Oxford required funding to continue its work, the current cap on fees was “certainly not intolerable.”
Unsurprisingly, students have not welcomed the suggested rise in fees. A Magdalen fourth year labelled Patten’s suggestion “massively, massively unfair.” She also accused the chancellor of being “more interested in money than students.”
Patten used his speech to rebuff government attacks on Oxbridge elitism, saying, “we are an easy cheap shot for left-wing politicians on a quiet weekend.”
He added, “It is odd that Oxford and Cambridge take a regular drubbing. They are after all among the few world-class institutions we have in this country.”
Patten’s remarks are the latest highlight of an admissions row that has raged all summer.
Postcode controversy adds to debate
Oxford University attracted attention from the national press during August when the university announced that admissions tutors would screen future applicants’ postcodes as a way of determining what students were applying from disadvantaged social backgrounds.
In response to controversy over the plan, a university spokesperson said that the move was not about “massaging our figures” but “finding the brightest students with the greatest potential to succeed at Oxford.” She insisted that academic excellence would not be compromised.
Tutors will also look at the collective results achieved by the applicant’s school, whether the student has spent time in care, or attended a program for disadvantaged pupils.
Any sufficiently able student who is flagged up in at least three of the criteria will be interviewed.
Oxford insisted, however, that the screening would play “no part in deciding who will receive an offer, or what that offer is.”
Following the announcement of postcode screening, Oxford’s Director of Admissions, Mike Nicholson, attempted to silence claims that the university failed to attract enough students from disadvantaged backgrounds by saying that the majority of candidates eligible for Oxbridge places already apply.
Nicholson said that, of the 28,000 students achieving 3 A’s at A Level, 11,000 already applied to Oxford, and a similar number to Cambridge. The remainder, he suggested, often wished to study subjects such as dentistry, which neither university offers.
Nicholson was responding to a recent Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) report which advised that a national bursary scheme be set up to help poorer students.
The report concedes that such an arrangement would “would benefit some universities and disadvantage others” but argues that the current system penalizes, “those very universities that recruit the most students from poor backgrounds.”