The debate surrounding education cuts was reignited in Parliament after a Labour MP condemned Oxford for providing free lunches to college fellows, on the grounds that students and tax payers are footing the bill.
The Tottenham constituency’s David Lammy branded the practice as “antiquated” during a heated debate at the House of Commons. Lammy, a former minister for higher education, was referring to the University’s practice of treating its academics to complimentary meals. With the shadow of higher tuition fees lurking on the horizon, he questioned whether Parliament was justified in “asking students to pay more when some universities have not sorted out their inefficiencies”. He added: “Is it right that Oxford fellows get a free lunch on the taxpayer?”
Although the MP’s comments have caused a moderate stir in the media, some Oxford students are unimpressed by Lammy’s assault on the University’s catering arrangements. Phillippa Hibbs, a third year student at Wadham, thinks that such scrutiny of is a “distraction from other issues. Worrying about free lunches as opposed to the impact of hiking up fees by such a massive amount is counter-productive. There are far bigger problems to be tackled here.”
A spokesperson for the University said: “Oxford college lunches are not funded by the taxpayer, or by student fees. The public funding colleges receive for undergraduate teaching nowhere near covers the costs of undergraduate teaching, let alone covering any other college costs. In fact, both the central University and the colleges heavily subsidise the cost of undergraduate teaching from their own private funds, and will continue to do so under any future student finance arrangements.”
Monte Neate-Clegg, a first year student at Magdalen, agreed with the ethos behind Lammy’s statements during the debate: “I think in principle Lammy is right. If we as a university are getting a lot less funding then we shouldn’t necessarily be squandering it on such things as free lunches. Having said that, I have no idea how big a deal free lunches are in the grand scheme of things and perhaps this is just drawing attention away from bigger issues.”
Another student, who wished not to be named, dismissed the complimentary lunches as irrelevant: “Whether or not Oxford tutors receive free meals is an unimportant debate. In the grand scheme of things, cutting perks for dons will not make a big difference. There are other areas in the University that should be taking the cuts instead. In my opinion, some of Oxford’s equipment is superfluous; we could do without, for example, the second IR Spectroscopy in the laboratories.”
One Oxford tutor, who also wished to remain anonymous, denied that taxpayers would be footing the bill for free lunches or other perks: “David Lammy’s claim is unfounded. There is a very clear understanding that the meals are free because our salaries are deflated. In other words, the perks we receive, such as meals free of charge, compensate for our lower salaries. Students and taxpayers definitely do not fund these meals.”
However, he added: “There is certainly a debate about the provision of these free meals. Fellows, for example, get an unlimited amount of free meals, whereas those of stipendiary lecturers are limited according to various contractual factors.”
David Lammy has been a vocal opponent against the coalition’s education cuts and voluntarily opened his expenses to public scrutiny in 2009. During a brief phone interview, he defended his criticism of the University: “Students are really feeling it right now and are being asked to pay considerably more. So I’m afraid that given the circumstances, such as the significant rise in tuition fees, I still stand by what I said.”
Regards his branding of Oxford as “antiquated”, Lammy responded: “There is no doubt that they are antiquated practices. Even if the money for those lunches is not coming from taxpayer funds, there is certainly an issue here. I am aware that Oxford is not paying tax on the money they receive which funds those lunches. Besides, they should be using that money to fund bursaries, scholarships or access schemes, not to give college fellows a free meal. Students don’t get free meals and I don’t think that’s fair.”
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