Balliol plans new student top-up fee

Balliol plans a new charge of up to £500 on incoming students in a final attempt to avoid becoming “a second class institution”.

Andrew Graham, the Master of Balliol, revealed the plans to students in an email on Saturday, saying the fee, which he called a “domus charge”, was needed because they had “already done everything else”.

Students at Balliol were “appalled” by the proposal, said JCR President Alistair Travis.

In his email, Graham defended the charge as the only course of action remaining following other budget-cutting measures at the college. He blamed Balliol’s financial predicament on the global financial crisis – which helped knock more than £11.5 million off the college’s endowment in 2008-2009 – and the coming cuts to public funding for higher education, which are expected to amount to £2.9 billion nationally over the next four years.

It is unclear how much exactly the government cuts will cost Oxford and its colleges, but university and college officials have warned that it is increasingly difficult to pay for teaching even at today’s funding levels. The government has proposed roughly trebling the current cap on academic fees to £9000 to help meet universities’ needs, but Oxford administration claims it costs £16,000 to teach an undergraduate here.

“This is the cuts in action,” said OUSU President David Barclay. “This is what the cuts mean for students in Oxford. This is the future unless public funding is increased.”

In the email Graham, who did not reply to requests for comment, said he was “certainly not turning to students first as an easy source of revenue”.

After taking “£200,000 out of the budget” and giving “all staff a pay freeze” Graham insisted that there was no option for the College other than to implement the domus charge.

In an emergency JCR meeting on Tuesday night, Executive Committee members criticised the charge and questioned the handling of College finances.

“The charge will only be propping up a broken system,” said Travis, the JCR President.

He told Balliol students that the Executive Committee considered the charge ineffective and unfair, especially for students beginning at Balliol next year.

“The next round of interviewees doesn’t know about the fee yet but will still be charged when they arrive next October,” he said.
Travis also said he was not told about the possible charge until 5th week and was “not particularly happy with the way the college has handled the issue”.

His committee is looking at the charge’s effect on applications as well as possible challenges to its legality. Colleges are allowed to charge as much as they want for accommodation and board, but charging students for academics could be illegal as each university may only currently charge the maximum tuition fee for teaching and academic facilities.

According to the college’s 2009 financial statements Balliol has managed to generate small overall surpluses through its operation over the past four years. With access to a detailed breakdown of Balliol’s expenditure, JCR Executive Committee members say that the College doesn’t lose any money housing students, only from academics.

Stephen Dempsey, President-elect of the JCR, said: “Balliol loses money mainly through academia, so how is the domus charge a domestic charge?”

OUSU President David Barclay said the student union is consulting with the Balliol JCR and MCR about the proposal’s legality.

Keeping up standards

“Balliol isn’t a rich college because we have a small endowment compared to the number of students and fellows we have,” said Dempsey. “We’re currently using the endowment to pay for the expenditure of the college, and at this rate the endowment money will decrease each year because of the cuts.”

Balliol’s endowment stood at about £53.5 million last year, coming out to about £56,000 in endowment money per student. St. John’s and Christ Church – which have the two largest endowments among Oxford colleges, with values of £277 million and £268 milllion respectively – boast more than £400,000 in endowment money for each of their students.

Balliol is facing a hefty bill for “urgent spending requirements” for its buildings, according to Graham’s email, after a recent survey by Savills, the estate agents.

The estimated £3 million costs would go towards overhauling the electricity network in one building, re-flooring the hall, and refurbishing student rooms.

There are also plans to erect a new building to host conferences to increase Balliol’s income.

“If we were to take this sum from our endowment, we would be losing £120,000 per annum,” wrote Graham.

Many students remain unconvinced.

“The overwhelming consensus is that it’s the wrong move,” said Balliol student Stephen Bush “Instead of fixing the problems with the system they’re going to charge us for them. It’s like trying to bail water out of a leaking ship.”

Travis pointed out the charge comes at an uncertain time in university finances, with the exact cost of university fees over the next few years still uncertain.

“It seems nonsensical to decide a charge before fee rises are known,” he said. “I don’t know why they’re doing it this year as fees will go up soon anyway and endowment levels will change.”

Will they still apply?

Students are also worried that a new fee will put off potential applicants.

“I wouldn’t have applied if the charge were in place,” said Ellen Miller, a Balliol student. “The Master’s idea is that the money will help maintain the College’s high academic standards, but with a charge in place we’ll have fewer people applying and more pooled applicants so standards will actually drop.”

College officials argue that a financial aid system will be put in place to help those who can’t afford the charge, but students remain sceptical.

“The poor people will have the embarrassing and unedifying spectacle of going to the chaplain and asking for money,” said Bush. “It’s a poll tax.”

Dempsey, the President-elect, said that the bursary system was not well-run: “Many people who should be getting money aren’t. I want to make it more open, transparent and easily accessible.”

The JCR Executive plans to suggest to College officials alternative ways to raise money. Balliol students expressed serious concern this week about how funds are spent now.

One student at the General Meeting noted that the “Balliol hall staff stand three deep but with only one actually serving”, and asked: “Is it really necessary to have the gardener sweep leaves off the quad every day?”

“We expect fundamental changes in how Balliol is run before any fee is administered,” Dempsey said.

“There are so many more progressive charges,” said Travis. “It would be better to just increase rent over a few years.”

“Most students would be willing to sacrifice their scout or subsidised hall food.”

Balliol has other domestic charges in place which apply to all students. Every member – even those living out – is charged £55.20 a year for “kitchen amenities”, although even within college not every staircase has a kitchen.

Every student also pays £27.10 per year for “telephone rent”.

Balliol’s finance bursar confirmed that College officials would meet “some time next week” to discuss the plans, but declined to comment further. The College domestic bursar also declined to comment.

A new era for university costs?

The potential introduction of a charge at Balliol might set a precedent for similar charges in colleges across Oxford.

Graham wrote that “even some of the wealthier colleges” in Oxford are considering similar charges; Travis said he had been told the same thing by Balliol officials. Graham suggested Magdalen, Merton, Christ Church and St Johns might also consider the charge, The Telegraph reports.

All of the bursars contacted before going to press said, however, that they were not planning on introducing anything resembling Balliol’s domus charge. Some were surprised to learn that the new Balliol charge would not be levied for any specific service.

St Catz bursar James Bennett said: “That’s not how we play it here.”

Alice Thornton contributed reporting