The Moritz–Heyman donation, contrary to earlier comment in this paper, should be welcomed. This is not because the current settlement for students was unfair – the post-Browne system was based on the idea that it was the university students themselves who ought to pay a greater proportion of the cost of their education. Given the burden on the taxpayer, this seems fair. Indeed raising fees was not a symbolic gesture but a concession to the imminent financial environment: if Oxford could lower fees, then it would. The Moritz–Heyman Scholarship makes this possible for the poorest of Oxford’s students.
We have long suffered from a perception that we are a “university for the rich” – or at least the well heeled middle classes. When evaluating where Mr Moritz and Ms Heyman ought to direct their money, this consideration is clearly something which sets Oxford (and Cambridge) apart from other universities. A tuition fee of £9,000 a year will inevitably act as a negative signal to that effect to those on low incomes, even if the package of bursaries and the fees system mean that in reality it remains a good investment.
Regardless of image, reducing living costs has always been central to Oxford’s attempts to broaden its intake of students from lower-income families. Whilst the recently introduced repayment system makes it less obvious why that ought to still work, two things must still be remembered.
First, any student loan is still a loan; it is still money that has been spent in the hope of increasing your future earnings. Depressingly the public remains poor at accurately forecasting the future value of something to them, preferring a bird in the hand to two in the bush. Moreover, the effect of coming from a family on a lower income warps that person’s attitude to money and saving in particular. It is important to remember that the Moritz–Heyman Scholarship will apply to those on household incomes of just £16,000; in other words, a little more than one family member on the minimum wage.
For those who struggle to make ends meet on a daily basis, justifying what might be £20,000 of debt even with bursary arrangement must be difficult. Alleviating the financial burden that attending Oxford is seen to pose will help attract those from lower-income families. It is reassuring that last year’s applicants shared the same socio-economic mix as previous years, but this was hardly a satisfactory state of affairs. The long term effect is uncertain: although Peter Wilby in the Guardian might be sceptical about its effects, his views clearly aren’t shared by many at his paper.
Second, income is not the sole factor in your ability to repay your student loan. Wealth plays a large role, and one which it would be easy to underestimate. If your student loan acts essentially like an additional income tax, then how much poorer it makes you will ultimately depend on how the rest of your income is spent – whether you have the security of a forthcoming inheritance, or conversely have to pay for the case of your parents or family dependents because others in the family do not have the means.
Donors always have other options for their money, but Oxford’s problems are unlikely to be solved from the outside. Free of large capital projects on which to spend the money, and ever wary of holding too much power over the colleges, the University, Mr Moritz and Ms Heyman have made the correct decision.