Why Andrew Hamilton’s comments are divisive and dangerous

Whilst I don’t entirely lack sympathy for Vice-Chancellor Andrew Hamilton’s concern at the increasing funding gap, he has completely missed the point with his most recent statement on fees and in the process made comments which are deeply damaging to the progress Oxford is making on fair access. He argues that to meet the costs of our education system, universities should be able to charge fees that are in line with the cost of the education they provide. In addition, he mentioned the cost of an Oxford education as 16k per year.

It is certainly true that a funding gap exists due to the cost of an Oxford education being comparatively more than most- the tutorial system perhaps being the most visible example of this. Colleges are to an extent feeling the pinch; though not by any means comparable to that at other universities. Even the relatively-poorer colleges sit on endowments running into the tens of millions. Huge revenue comes from vacation-period conferences, the University press, a commercial enterprise of merchandise unmatched outside Cambridge, alumni donations, land and other assets and the profitability of the university’s research. Time and again administration focusses on the wrong targets. Even in spite of recent increases we have the Russell Group’s poorest student union and still fall in well below average when common rooms are accounted for. Yet our IT overspend has allegedly reached millions, and expenditure on luxuries remains observably high. Hamilton’s comments are the ultimate example of a trend of misdirected concern; a strategy that expects students and staff to pick up the bill for rising costs as opposed to demanding increased public funding.

As anyone who has worked with access projects will know, myth-busting is hard enough as it is. In spite of Moritz-Heyman donations, the Opportunity Bursary scheme, fee waivers and a national fee cap and the fact that Oxford is probably one of the best places to be as a low-income student, the misconception that Oxford is financially elitist is still rife. At access conferences in Leicester, London and Newcastle I have been confronted with people telling me they ‘can’t afford’ to go to Oxford compared to other universities. According to the Sutton Trust nearly half of comprehensive school teachers wouldn’t encourage their most talented students to apply to Oxbridge, and in the 2011 year of entry, only five hundred students from ‘flagged’ (i.e. disadvantaged) backgrounds applied (one hundred were made offers.) It is a phenomenon that perpetuates the dire record we still have on school demographics, despite the best efforts of the access community. How much worse will that become if our Vice Chancellor gets his own way and Oxford actually does become more expensive than other universities? Whether he realises or not (and his speech does acknowledge the importance of access), his comments are a slap in the face to every one of us who has spent time and effort going to schools or venues to tell people that finance is not a concern when applying to this university. We are all aware that student loans can be taken out and the value of an Oxbridge degree is high. But with the loan book due to be privatised this autumn, and besides a tepid ministerial press release which the NUS took as a ‘guarantee’, we cannot truly know what will happen to loan interest rates. No-one, especially those from poorer backgrounds want to be saddled with £48,000 of debt for the fees on a three-year course alone. Also, Hamilton argues we should link the cost of a degree to the fee, essentially. Does that mean that arts students should pay disproportionate fees to subsidise the more expensive sciences, or that we charge astronomical fees to sciences students and thus discourage people from half of the academic field? Neither is an especially pleasant prospect.

When the Browne Report and new tuition fee legislation broke, it was not just students that were deeply angry. The Congregation of dons voted to mandate Hamilton to write a letter rejecting the raising of the fee cap. It would thus be perfectly consistent were he to lobby for raised funding of the sector as a whole, in partnership with the Russell Group and other universities. On the most basic level, students are unfairly affected by austerity- raised fees in line with the cuts across the board would leave the fee level at around £4500 according to 2010 calculations. Graduates on average repay 10% more in tax, the university system employs between 2-3% of the national workforce, our universities are internationally renowned and yet we have among the lowest university funding streams in the OECD. We are even outmatched by the United States, a nation not known for their commitment to overwhelming state funding. There is no reason for the current drive toward education cuts that is leaving hundreds of thousands of students without places, essentially culling numbers in what looks suspiciously like a bid to turn those with a degree into an elite again. It is not just students either. This term unions are likely to take industrial action in Oxford and nationwide against a real-terms pay cut this year and a 13% real-terms pay cut over the last four years as they are expected to bear increased workloads. Academics are being hit hard, the situation for staff at Oxford’s museums (the Pitt Rivers and the Ashmolean) is even worse, and it is only due to concerted campaigning by students that many more colleges pay cleaning staff the living wage.

Our JCRs, MCRs, subject groups and representatives should not put up with the content of Hamilton’s address, with a man on a £424k salary telling us to tighten our belts for the sake of Oxford. Our university is made up of its tutors and students. We produce the academic relationships, the value of research, the community spirit and the educational fora that make this institution what it is. Andrew Hamilton, a man who purports to lead this community wants instead to force us to pay for financial problems that we are not responsible for.