University officials are set to meet with the Labour MP Liam Byrne, who is Shadow Minister for Universities, Science and Skills, to discuss “the current challenges of HE funding”. Attendees at the meeting will include Byrne, the University’s Vice-Chancellor, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, the Registrar and the Director of Communications and Public Affairs. Items of discussion that have been suggested for consideration at the meeting include variable fees, postgraduate support and research funding.

The OUSU VP for Access & Academic Affairs Rachel Pickering received an email about the meeting on Thursday 29th May. Pickering received the email, as part of an itinerary for the day of the meeting in question, as she is due to discuss Oxford’s access and support packages with the University  after the meeting between the Shadow Minister and University officials.

The meeting follows comments by the Vice-Chancellor, in Michaelmas Term 2013, that raised the prospect that tuition fees could be raised £16,000 per undergraduate every year. In response, over 20 JCRs and OUSU Council passed motions condemning the speech by the Vice-Chancellor.

OUSU President Tom Rutland commented, “It is unacceptable for the University to be secretly lobbying the Shadow Minister for Higher Education to introduce variable fees at an undergraduate level. Make no mistake: variable fees would mean an increase in the fees students will pay, and potentially a total lifting of the cap on fees that was raised just a few years ago.”

Pickering commented, “I was deeply angered yesterday to receive a communication, which cited a ‘takeaway message’ of ‘variable fees’ for Liam Byrne, the Shadow Minister for Higher Education on his visit to Oxford next week. I stand with the University that the Government should ‘invest in education at all levels’, but this should be through increased public funding of the Higher Education sector.”

Xavier Cohen, who is a member of the Oxford Activist Network, responded to the news by commenting, “This is a blatant act of unilateral lobbying from the unelected leader of our University to further marketise education. The problem Andrew Hamilton faces is one of funding, but to choose to secretively push for a market solution that will increasingly discourage less well-off students from applying to our university rather than publicly call for greater government funding is a betrayal of even the most basic conceptions of justice and democracy.

 “I urge students who care about education to take the initiative to bring motions to their common rooms condemning Andrew Hamilton’s actions in the strongest possible terms.”

A University spokesperson commented, “Oxford University is not lobbying on behalf of variable fees or any other system of tuition funding.

“University representatives intend to use next week’s planned meeting to discuss a wide range of higher education issues with Mr Byrne, including student funding. They will repeat the point, which the University has made many times in the past, that there is a wide gap between the current tuition fees limit and the true cost of many undergraduate degrees. In Oxford’s case this true cost is at least £16,000 per undergraduate per year. The University is not lobbying for any particular solution to this problem. It will, of course, be discussing with Mr Byrne options that have been already been aired, including variable fees. More important to the University however, is that that all political parties should be fully aware of the funding gap when they come to formulate their higher education policies.“