Oxford University Vice Chancellor Professor Andrew Hamilton and Universities Minister David Willetts were in direct correspondence regarding the setting of the university’s tuition fees earlier in the year, The Oxford Student can reveal.
Copies of letters dated 15th March and 4th April seen by this newspaper show that Willetts encouraged the Vice Chancellor to “emphasise” figures which show that the average tuition fee for students at Oxford is set to be £8,5000.
Although Oxford, along with over two thirds of other universities, has set its basic tuition fee level at £9,000 from 2012 onwards, fee waivers – made available to all undergraduate students with an annual household income under £25,000 – mean that the average fee will be lower.
In a handwritten note to Hamilton, the Universities Minister described the lower figure as “striking”, and emphasised the importance of communicating this lower figure to the media.
Willetts’ letter also said: “Government and universities now have the shared challenge of ensuring that poor information does not fuel inaccurate perceptions of the real costs and benefits of higher education.”
A spokesperson for David Willetts defended this stance: “It is important that prospective students are not put off applying to university because they do not understand the new system and the help available. That is why the government launched a press, radio, media partnership and social media campaign at the start of May. Universities have an important role to play as part of our campaign.”
OUSU President David Barclay said: “The average tuition fee is a number which may be of interest to the Treasury but in reality doesn’t actually mean anything to prospective students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”
Barclay went on to explain: “What they want to know is how much they will have to pay to come to Oxford, and the answer is that they will pay no more in their first year than they would have done under the old fees system. They will also be supported throughout their time in Oxford by the most generous bursary system in the country which is designed so that nobody should have to find paid work during term time.”
The University refused to comment on whether it has done enough to advertise the average fee level, but reiterated the Vice-Chancellor’s statement when the new fee level was announced that their “proposals show the strength of our commitment to being accessible for all”.
While Willett’s letter to the university addressed Hamilton on first name terms, referring to him as “Andy”, it is unclear whether this colloquial working relationship is still intact as the University Congregation moves to pass a motion of no confidence in the minister. The spokesperson for David Willetts declined to respond to this question.