On Tuesday afternoon a cast of academics and University officials took assembled at the Sheldonian Theatre to discuss the fee level which Oxford will set for undergraduates from 2012.
However, the Congregation’s debate quickly broadened to the issue of whether the University should accept the cuts to higher education at all.
Only a handful of students, a few OUSU delegates and reporters, were allowed in to witness the discussions.
Members of the Oxford Education Campaign protested outside, with images of gagging used to object to students not being allowed to attend the Congregation.
“Anger is felt by the majority of the students, because it’s only a minority of us who have been allowed to speak,” said one OEC member, a student at Ruskin College.
A row of protesters outside the building each held a cardboard letter, forming a banner that read “Strike to Stop Cuts.”
Some OEC members did make it inside with prepared statements which they read at the end of the Congregation.
Professor Tony Monaco, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Planning and Resources) opened the debate by declaring that, “We would have to charge fees of around £8,000 just to maintain the status quo.”
He explained that were the University to charge £9,000 a year, extra revenue would be produced, which could be put towards fee waivers for less wealthy students.
Monaco added that a £3,000 fee waiver is being considered, to send the message to poorer applicants that “it is no more costly to attend Oxford than any other UK higher education institution”.
Professor Susan Cooper of St Catherine’s College remarked that the debt would not be “a risk to students” but to the government, who do not yet know how much student debt they will have to “forgive” after 30 years.
Others stressed the University’s ability to challenge the cuts. Politics tutor Stuart White said, “If we really believe in equality of opportunity, then as a university we must be clear and loud in saying that we oppose the new fees regime in higher education.”
Robin Briggs, Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College, said of the Browne Review, “That intellectually vacuous report espouses a pure market ideology in which everything is reduced to the lowest common denominator of money.”
Nick Clegg’s recent announcement that universities will have to fulfil a number of conditions regarding access will also impact the University’s decision regarding the fee level. The University will have to admit a certain number of students from poorer backgrounds, possibly with lower grade offers, in order to justify their £9,000 fee.
Despite this, OUSU President David Barclay expressed fears that, “this new system through poor design and shocking PR will put the poorer students off applying to university.”
He added, “The day we give up on students who would never before thought of coming to university coming here to Oxford is the day we abandon any pretence of seeking academic talent wherever it may be found.”
The shouts of the protesters could be heard from inside the building. Beth Evans, OEC member and OUSU VP for Graduate and International Students, said in her impromptu speech to the Congregation, “There are students outside right now who are telling you, who are asking you to fight.
“They are saying they will support you if you fight. They will support you in strikes and in industrial action.”
As members of the congregation left, they were met by members of the OEC who told academics that they would back them should they choose to strike.
At the OEC meeting on Monday, the decision was made to support strikes in the academic community rather than calling for free education, which one member called “a lost cause”.
Sky Herington, a student at St Edmund Hall, remarked, “We’re not just fighting fees, we’re fighting cuts. We’re telling the academics that if they were to go on strike they would have our full support.”
Wadham second year Rebecca Sparrow said, “It is encouraging for those who rejected the whole premise that a rise in fees was given.
“There were no arguments for the cuts, people either spoke about how to deal with them or how we should campaign against them. We can work together, students and academics, we all acknowledge the damage the cuts will do to education and society.”