Oxford University Chancellor Chris Patten has attacked the “angry middle class parents” who have criticised his proposal of a rise in tuition fees, in an interview with Cherwell.
The Chancellor also spoke of his belief in the need for a removal of the cap on top-up fees, driven by his “overwhelming concern” for the future of the university’s finances.
“Over the decade we’ve doubled the number of university students and halved the money available to support them,” he explained. “That has huge implications for university finance. There are only three places you can get money from for a university: private benefactors, the taxpayer or tuition fees.”
He added, “my overwhelming concern is that I think universities are going to have a very tough time in the next few years and in order to be competitive we need more funding. In those circumstances what do you do – do you simply say we must settle for universities having to be even more badly financed, or do you look for alternatives?”
He stated that universities should “by and large be able to set fees for tuition related to the bursaries they provide for less well off students.”
He attacked the “angry middle class parents” who have criticised his suggestion that the cap on tuition fees should be lifted, labelling their behaviour “paradoxical” and “bizarre.”
He said, “do I think it’s paradoxical at the moment that quite a lot of parents pay a fortune to put their children through private schools and then resent it when they have to pay when universities charge more than 3000 a year. I think it’s absolutely crazy. So I’m unregenerate and have been for, well, since the late 1980s, in advocating tuition fees.”
He added, “parents are prepared to spend £20-30000 a year, or if it’s a year £10-15000 a year getting their children into university but then resent paying more than £3000 when their child is at university.”
However, Patten was quick to deny that “the sky should be the limit” as far as tuition fees are concerned and stressed the need for a “fixed scale which would relate the amount of income that universities and colleges can charge for tuition to the amount of money they provided for bursaries for less well off students.”
He called for “needs-blind access to Oxford and Cambridge” to ensure that students from a less well-off background are not discouraged from applying to Oxford, stating that “the big issue is how much we are able to spend on bursaries for less well off students who might otherwise be discouraged from coming to Oxford.”
“I think it’s imperative that we hang on to the notion of a complete meritocracy at Oxford and Cambridge provided we can demonstrate that there is integrity of the system. It makes it easier to resist pressure from some on the left that we should have social code preference in our entry procedures, rather than trying to get the best wherever they come from.”
Although Patten is highly sceptical of the government quotas on the number of state school students that Oxford should admit – he refers to these as “arbitrary, central planning quotas” – he is proud of the efforts that Oxford puts in to its outreach scheme. “We spend over 2 million a year to get kids from schools that haven’t traditionally sent them to Oxford. It’s very impressive the amount we’re doing around the place.”
It is his belief in meritocracy that underpins his rejection of a legacy point preference scheme in use in many American universities use, a system whereby applicants are given priority if their parents are alumni or have donated money to the university the children get preference.
He called such a system “a terrible idea,” adding that George W Bush’s gaining of a place at the prestigious Harvard Business School “must have been unrelated to intelligence.”
However, he did admit that donations from private benefactors would need to increase in order to address funding. Last May, the Oxford Campaign was launched which aimed to raise a minimum of £1.25 billion and “increase the participation rate of alumni giving.”
However, he admitted that donations from alumni would not be sufficient to make up for the loss of funding through the current recession. “The difference with America,” he explains, “is that the American taxpayer spends twice as much on Higher Education and further learning. If you then add to that the amount that comes privately America has this huge lead over all European universities.”