Oxford VC to push for independent fee-setting power

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The University’s Vice Chancellor intends to push for “variable fees” in a meeting with a top politician next week, a leaked email has revealed.

A copy of the agenda, sent to OUSU sabbatical officers, shows that Andrew Hamilton is having a private lunchtime meeting with Labour Shadow Education Minister Liam Byrne  “to discuss the challenges of Higher Education funding”.

The agenda states that the “takeaway message” for Byrne is “government should invest in education at all levels, including at the very highest. Variable fees, with guaranteed needs-blind admission, would be an effective way of doing this”.

A variable fee system allows universities in effect to decide their own tuition fee level, with the ability to vary the cost according to students’ private means.

This comes after the Vice Chancellor suggested that fees could in the future be raised to £16,000 to reflect the “true cost of an Oxford education” in a speech last October. 20 JCRs passed motions to condemn Hamilton’s proposals.

OUSU President Tom Rutland slammed Hamilton’s plan, claiming: “It is unacceptable for the University to be secretly lobbying the Shadow Minister for Higher Education to introduce variable fees at an undergraduate level.

“Make no mistake: variable fees would mean an increase in fees students will pay and potentially a total lifting of the cap on fees that was raised just a few years ago.”

Rutland argued that “students will be appalled” by Hamilton’s “unilateral lobbying behind closed doors”, and characterised the plans as “a raid on the futures of young people”.

“Students rightly expect to be consulted on matters of major importance, and leaving OUSU out of discussions on the University’s position on tuition fees undermines the partnership that has been built between OUSU and the University for several years”.

“Top level discussion on fees in the university must involve students- and not be dominated by those who never had to pay them,” he added.

Rachel Pickering, OUSU VP for Access and Academic Affairs, joined the condemnation: “I was deeply angered to receive a communication, which cited a ‘takeaway message’ of ‘variable fees’ for Liam Byrne”.

“A ‘bumper sticker price’ of £16k, regardless of measures to ensure fair access, will have deleterious consequences to our fair access agenda.”

“As part of my role this year I have met with many Year 12 students – and at every meeting the issue of Oxford being an expensive institution and place to live is raised,” she added.

A spokesperson for the University said: “Oxford University is not lobbying on behalf of variable fees or any other system of tuition funding. University representatives intend to use next week’s planned meeting to discuss a wide range of higher education issues with Mr Byrne, including student funding.”

“They will repeat the point, which the University has made many times in the past, that there is a wide gap between the current tuition fees limit and the true cost of many undergraduate degrees.”

“In Oxford’s case this true cost is at least £16,000 per undergraduate per year. The University is not lobbying for any particular solution to this problem. It will, of course, be discussing with Mr Byrne options that have been already been aired, including variable fees.”

“More important to the University however, is that that all political parties should be fully aware of the funding gap when they come to formulate their higher education policies,” he added.