OUSU condemns “unthinkable” fee rise suggestion

Oxford Vice-Chancellor Andrew Hamilton claimed yesterday that universities should be able to charge undergraduate students higher tuition fees.

Claiming that on average it costs £16,000 a year to educate an Oxford student, Professor Hamilton argued that a system of fees more closely related to the cost of education provided had become necessary.

The comments were made at the Vice-Chancellor’s annual University oration.

The speech has so far attracted a mix response. OUSU President Tom Rutland condemned the suggestion as “unthinkable”:

“Students’ pockets and futures have already been raided by this government when it betrayed them and trebled undergraduate tuition fees in 2010.

“This generation is paying more and more, even as graduate employment prospects are worsening and the cost of living is rising. It is extremely concerning to hear talk of fees increasing, especially from the Vice-Chancellor of our university.”

Hamilton stressed that he considered a shakeup of the higher education system to be unlikely in the near future, thanks to an upcoming general election and the recent tuition fee rise.  It was, however, his view that the time was right to “hold up a mirror to Oxford”.

“What matters, surely, is that an institution’s charges are clearly aligned with what it offers and that they are demonstrably not a barrier to student success.

Oxford’s record of providing financial assistance to low-income applicants was emphasized throughout the speech. The strength of this record was something conceded by Rutland, although he stated that:

“The discussion about increasing fees further risks alienating and pricing out those people we are reaching out to.”

Although it touched on University facilities and ways of increasing the ethnic diversity of Oxford students, most public reaction to the speech has focused on its description of “a funding shortfall of more than £7,000 per student.”

This reaction was not wholly negative. Hamilton gained the support of the Russell Group, whose director general Dr Wendy Piatt told The Independent:

“Our leading institutions cannot continue to be internationally competitive, provide a first-rate teaching experience and offer generous support to disadvantaged students without access to increased funding.”

However, many others have joined OUSU in criticizing the speech, made only a year after the tuition fee rise to £9,000 a year was implemented in 2012.  Among them is Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the University and College Union:

“Higher university fees are not what this country needs.

“The University of Oxford should be looking to work with the rest of the sector to lobby for greater support and funding for higher education as a whole.”

However, she also stated that Professor Hamilton deserved to be, “applauded for going after one of the rawest nerves in politics to try and get higher education funding back in the spotlight”.

Oxford City Councillor Sam Hollick was similarly unenthusiastic:

“The idea that higher tuition fees are needed is shockingly out of touch. Higher fees will only send a message that Oxford is for the few and not the many, undermining all the good work on access that the university does.”

Hollick, a member of the Green Party, also expressed concern about the eventual effect a rise would have on graduates’ economic well-being:

“Given the government’s plans to privatise student loans, higher fees would pose an even bigger risk of graduates facing unmanageable debt.

“If as a society we want to educate people regardless of background, then university should be free and publicly funded.”

The Vice-Chancellor’s comments come in the aftermath of the publication of several university league tables in recent months, with many alleging that only the “golden triangle” of the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and London are set to maintain their reputation as British, world-leading institutions.