St Hugh’s accused of selecting students “on the basis of wealth”

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St Hugh’s College is being taken to court by an applicant who was barred from taking up his place on grounds of wealth.

The claim brought against the College is that their selection procedure for postgraduate students is not solely based on academic talent, but also by their ability to pay the total costs of over £21,000.

Damien Shannon, 26, won a place to study an MSc in economic history last March but was prevented from commencing the course because he couldn’t demonstrate the ability to pay the course fees along with living costs of £12,900 a year.

In legal papers he claims that through setting financial requirements, St Hugh’s are discriminating against poorer students. Shannon said: “It is my contention that the effect of the financial conditions of entry is to select students on the basis of wealth, and to exclude those not in possession of it. In particular, the requirement for evidence of funds for living costs has a discriminatory effect.”

Projected earnings for students who intend to carry out paid work alongside their course are apparently not taken into account, and the college only offers a single means-tested scholarship.

Shannon’s claim will have its first hearing in February in Manchester county court, and will be backed by Hazel Blears, a former Labour cabinet minister who is now chairwoman of the all-party parliamentary group on social mobility.  Blears sees the case as highlighting the scale of financial hurdles facing potential postgraduate students.

She has subsequently introduced a parliamentary debate on the issue which will be held this Wednesday.

The case is refuted by St Hugh’s, who concede that Shannon was barred because he could not demonstrate sufficient financial capabilities yet argue that the financial guarantee is a necessary measure. In lawyers’ defence papers, they claim it ensures students will be able to complete their courses without experiencing financial uncertainty.

The papers assert that that since the “great majority of courses at the university (including the course to which the claimant applied) are heavily oversubscribed, it is important that those who obtain a place on those courses are financially able to complete them”. They add that the inability to meet the financial assurance does not fall “disproportionately within” poorer sections of society.

A spokesman for St Hugh’s commented: “The requirement that postgraduate students provide a financial guarantee in order to take up their course place at the University of Oxford is made clear to potential applicants. The university and college have both made fundraising for postgraduate scholarships a key priority.”

Shannon had successfully applied to the Co-Operative Bank for a professional career development loan of £10,000 to cover the tuition fees. Yet, this still left the full financial requirements unsatisfied, as Shannon is unable to rely at all on parental funding.

A University representative said: “Oxford has been vocal about its wish that postgraduate admissions should be truly needs-blind, and works very hard to make progress towards this aim, both by fundraising for postgraduate support and lobbying the UK government to put in place measures to ensure that postgraduates, like undergraduates, have access to loans that ensure postgraduate study is a possibility for all.”



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