The University is at risk of losing millions of pounds in funding after the government announced spending cuts for the maintenance of historic buildings, alongside a raft of measures designed to reduce government funding of universities.
The planned cuts have been sceptically received by Oxford students.
Lord Mandelson, secretary of state for business, innovation and skills, declared the government’s intention to make Universities more “consumer friendly”.
In a document setting out the framework for the future of higher education, Mandelson said he would cut funding to courses which do not contribute directly to the economy, or are of a poor quality. Technology and environmental science courses are expected to be least vulnerable to the changes.
In another measure to save money during the current economic climate, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) will abolish the £40m fund that universities currently receive to look after historic buildings. Oxford will lose £5.14m for maintenance of architectural masterpieces such as the Bodleian library and Wren’s Sheldonian theatre.
An Oxford University spokesman said that while there is a potential loss, “the decision is still up to HEFCE. We’re obviously concerned and have made our case to HEFCE. The ball is now in their court.”
Mandelson gave strong backing to universities that discriminate in favour of applicants from poor families or under-performing schools, arguing that the policy is essential to improve social mobility.
Oxford University commented, “We already have a rigorous selection procedure, with many measures in place to make sure we get the students with the best academic potential from all backgrounds. We look at applicants backgrounds and consider problems, for example, if they have been in foster care or gone to a low-achieving school, particularly pre A-levels.
“However, the government needs to make sure that talented students apply – we can only let in people who apply.” Oxford’s medical admissions scheme, for instance, gives extra points during admissions to students from schools with lower than average GCSE results.
In addition, university courses will be tagged with their drop-out rates, graduates’ future earnings, the number of contact hours students can expect with tutors, and how they score in the National Student Survey, so that students can make a more informed choice when embarking on their university career. Businesses will become more involved in the design and funding of courses.
The government is putting a heavy emphasis on universities providing better value-for-money for students. Currently students are faced with around £15000 of debt upon leaving university, and so it is increasingly important that they have as much information as possible to make sure they are embarking on the correct degree.
The proposals will increase fears that the government wants to make degrees more of a commodity, in order to justify a raise in fees. Many leading universities, including Imperial College and Durham University, are pushing for fees to rise to as much as £7000, with £2000 of this going towards bursaries for students from low-income families. However, a review of the current system will not be completed until after the next general election.
There are also concerns that the proposed plans to label courses in a similar way to the nutritional information on food will be misleading, with universities cutting corners to get to the top of a league table. OUSU’s VP for Access and Academic Affairs, Jonny Medland, welcomed the proposals, but was cautious about how useful the labelling of courses would be.
“More information about universities and courses is always valuable to prospective applicants. Comparative data about universities plays an important role in helping people make informed decisions – it is not, however, enough for people to make such choices merely on the basis of statistics. Going to university isn’t just about drop-out rates and career prospects. It’s also about personal development, new experiences and making the most of the opportunities which you are given. These aren’t things which can easily be measured in a league table but are valuable nevertheless.”
A Balliol undergraduate mathemetician said that the labelling of courses, “wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference to which degree I chose. I do my degree because I’m impassioned about my subject. I don’t like the idea of people doing a degree so that they can get a job. There’s a sort of obligation to do a degree so you can get a good job, rather than because you love the subject.”