Oxford’s college inequality scheme branded “ineffective”

There are calls for a “more radical redistribution of wealth amongst colleges”

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The University’s scheme designed to redistribute wealth amongst colleges, the College Contribution Scheme, is currently under “live discussions” among college heads, with a new version of the Scheme to be announced later this year.

Under the most recent Scheme (Scheme 6) colleges with taxable assets of above £45 mil- lion paid contributions into a fund from which poorer colleges could apply to for grants. 21 colleges pay the highest threshold of tax, which requires colleges to pay 0.36% of taxable wealth over £75 million.

The highest contributors to the scheme (St John’s, Christ Church, and All Soul’s) provided 38% of the total contribution in 2016/17, while undergraduate colleges such as Lady Margaret Hall, Harris Manchester, and Mansfield did not cross the threshold necessary to make contributions.

In fact, St John’s contribution before rebate would have covered the entirety of the grants confirmed in the year 2017/18 for 2018/19 – a total of £1.6 million and including those for housing allowances at St Anne’s, library expenditure at Kellogg, and graduate scholarships at St Edmund’s Hall.

Using the contribution formula, in 2016/17 the total amount of contributions called for from colleges would come to £11.4 million, a 15.3% increase on the previous year. However, the total amount of contributions from colleges is capped at £3 million per year, with colleges receiving a rebate pro rata when contributions exceed this amount. The central University also tops up the fund by £1 million.

Grant-eligible colleges still have to make contributions if they have taxable assets above £45 million, with these colleges contributing £42,299 in the year 2016/17.

Colleges are eligible for a grant from the fund if they have low taxable assets per student, or if these assets are “below a median or target value in one or more categories” by which college wealth can be assessed. Colleges are required to make “a convincing case for support” before the grant is permitted.

Out of the successful applications to the fund from 2013-21, the largest proportion (66%) went toward maintenance and refurbishment of colleges, while also being spent on scholarships, bursaries, housing allowances and teaching expenditure. St Peter’s College has been the greatest benefactor under the Scheme, receiving £1,163,500 between 2013-21.

Negotiations over the nature of Scheme 7 have been happening internally. Professor Andrew Barker, Principal Bursar of St John’s College said: “while discussions about a new scheme are still ongoing the College is not in a position to comment”.

Private Permanent Halls are excluded from the College Contribution Scheme, preventing them from applying for grants despite typically having smaller endowments.

President of Regent’s Park JCR, William Robinson, told Cherwell: “On the face of it, I can’t think how excluding PPHs from this scheme can be justified. We contribute to wider University life as much as any College, the only difference being our comparatively smaller size.

“Barring PPH access to this money is unlikely to redress the imbalance
in reputation and endowment that exists between us and much of Oxford, and this has a knock-on, compounding effect: we have less money to spend on our independent access efforts, and less to expand our size.

“While the rest of Oxford is able to continue to grow its student body and prestige through these grants, the potential to improve the situation, scale, and lives of our students our research output, and our reputation is curtailed by a lack of funding, while those that need it far less, given their long histories and large endowments, have access. It is hard to work out the thinking behind this scheme.”

Among the concerns raised by those affected by the Scheme is the impact it has on access. According to the University’s Admissions statistical report, colleges eligible for grants tend to take higher proportions of students generally classified as ‘disad- vantaged’. In 2016/17, 12.9% of Mansfield’s admissions were from disadvantaged areas, compared with Trinity’s 6.7%. In the same period, St Hugh’s took 19.2% from areas with low progression to higher education, compared with Queens’ 8.1% – the lowest of all the colleges.

Speaking to Cherwell, Mansfield’s JCR President Saba Shakil, said of the most recent scheme: “This directly affects the availability of a range of educational resources (from college library spending to research grants), as well as the cost of everyday living, and means that students who arrive at Oxford at a disadvantage are then further disadvantaged by the structure of the University itself.”

More broadly, this links to concerns over the equality of student experience between colleges.

Linacre’s CR President, James King, told Cherwell: “Students at Linacre are acutely aware that the wealth disparity between colleges results in a markedly different student experience.

“It is often awkward at our majority international graduate college when students with little prior knowledge of the college system discover that they have more expensive accommodation, less access to funding, and fewer facilities than others on the same courses as them. For example, DPhil students at Linacre can claim a maximum of £300 across the three or four years of their degrees for travel expenses, whereas students at Keble (to take one example) have access to £350 per year, over four and a half times more across a four year DPhil.

“Linacre is under great pressure to expand its student numbers as international postgrads generate profits for the University, but its facilities are increasingly unable to cope (from there only being enough pigeon holes in the porters’ lodge for about half the students, to having to turn freshers away from the matriculation bop because the number of attendees now regularly exceeds the legal capacity of the College bar and dining hall).”

Between 2013-20, Linacre claimed £551,003 from the College Contribution Fund.

King added: “It [the Scheme] has been extensively discussed by Linacre’s Governing Body on which I sit – our College has used it for essential repairs over the years.

“I would support a more equal redistribution of wealth between colleges, with a more progressive system of taxation, a lower bar for contributions (of say £30 million), and the inclusion of PPHs.”

Because they are reliant on grants being approved, poorer colleges often find themselves unable to plan their finances over the long-term and since grants are given with a speci c purpose in mind, poorer colleges can find it difficult to cope with unexpected expenditure.

King continued: “I think most Oxford students would be pretty surprised that Worces- ter and Keble are bracketed of cially as ‘poorer colleges’ able to claim for nancial assistance but Regents Park is not, due to the exclusion of PPHs from the scheme. In particular, Keble is able to claim for financial assistance from the fund despite having the resources to spend over £30m on building the H B Allen Centre, which is essentially a new graduate college exclusively for the use of its own students.”

Furthermore, some believe that no amount of redistribution can compensate for the difficulty in meeting teaching costs, experienced by almost all the colleges.

New College Bursar, David Palfreyman, told Cherwell: “The cost of delivering the Oxford Tutorial intensive undergraduate teaching is approximately £6,000-7,000 above the net fee/ grant income and the gap has to be covered from colleges’ endowment – but there is insufficient endowment across the colleges overall, no matter whether or not it is not spread equally/proportionally, to fund the current size of the UK/EU undergraduate population if undergraduate continue to be ‘properly’ taught.

“The rational long-term solution is to grow endowment through massive extra donations (as some US universities seem to manage), or to curtail the size of the undergraduate numbers, or to reduce the cost of the undergraduate teaching system – or a mix of all three; pending facing such reality a Scheme 7 is simply another bit of sticking plaster.”

Palfreyman also suggested increasing the total sum of the fund from approximately £60- 70 million to around £125 million. This would allow the proportion of the funds spent each year to remain the same, while increasing the amount available to be redistributed.

The last previous round of reforms came into practice in 2016. These involved raising the tax threshold and increasing the breadth of the tax bands to £9m, to make the tax more progressive and increase the proportion of contributions being paid by the wealthiest colleges. As a result of the reforms, the “tax paid by the colleges with the highest taxable net assets has increased as a proportion and the total contribution required of grant-eligible colleges has reduced by half (from £93.7k to £46.3k)”. In the year 2016/17, the total contribution by grant-eligible colleges was £42,299.

The University has been contacted for comment.

 

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