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Bargain Price Excellence


21 January 1994

The Times of London HES

Diversity has always been ready prey to suspicion and resentment. In this vein, Cantabrigian Claire Sanders' article attacking the college fee at the collegiate universities presents nothing new. What is perhaps new is the extent to which she has pressed misinformation into this cause. The college fee is the means by which the collegiate universities have been preserved into the modern era, have been allowed to create economies of scale throughout higher education, have been able to maintain standards of excellence, and, perhaps most importantly, have been made public resources open to all. Its loss would be a loss not only to the collegiate universities, but to all other institutions of education and to Britain as a whole.

The college fee is calculated by the Department for Education to cover the academic and administrative costs of the colleges of the collegiate universities, and, despite Miss Sanders' protestations to the contrary, the figures are published annually and are subject to the full glare of public scrutiny. In this respect, the college fee is no different from the tuition fees received by the unitary universities. If at Oxford and Cambridge it is higher than elsewhere, it is because their colleges take on a far greater share of academic responsibilities, and university income is accordingly lowered. A marked difference does arise, however, when one considers how the manipulation of the college fee has been to the detriment of both universities.

At Oxford, the DfE has used the college fee to justify reducing the central block grant by £14m, more than for any other institution in the country. On top of this have come changes to the funding methodology which have deprived Oxford of a further £3.7m to subsidise research programmes at newer universities, and the recent decision by the DfE to cut the college fee by 4% in real terms.

That this erosion of funding to the colleges threatens their very survival is especially ironic given that their existence has been a source of income to both the national treasury and to other institutions of higher and further education. The fundraising activities of the Oxford colleges have meant that as a proportion of total income, less public money is spent on Oxford than on any other university in Britain, with the savings available to the unitary institutions and elsewhere. Who is subsidising whom is, at the very least, open to debate. What is, however, unambiguous is that the colleges have brought substantial private and overseas resources into education which would otherwise have been diverted elsewhere.

Most paradoxical of all, however, are calls for the further reduction or abolition of the college fee on the grounds of "Oxbridge élitism". In recent decades, Oxford has made great strides towards attracting a more representative cross section of students to the university, and that goal has never been closer than today. It is precisely public support of the colleges via the college fee which has made this possible, by making the university a public resource. To turn back to the days when such support was not forthcoming would mean removing Oxford from the reach of all save those who could afford to support the colleges privately.

While it is a fabrication of Miss Sanders' article that the Oxford University Student Union has called for positive discrimination in admissions, our Target Schools programme is entering its second decade of recruiting applications from state sector pupils. It has been an arduous and trying process, but at last we are seeing the proportion of state school undergraduates rise. Just when we are seeing the fruits of these efforts, the fall in the level of the college fee brings with it the threat of compensatory top-up fees, which would spirit an Oxford education beyond the reach of many of these pupils. Those calling for the outright end of the college fee are calling for Oxford to be made the exclusive province of the wealthy.

Moreover, the efforts of Oxford to diversify itself and the sectors of society it can serve are only possible because of the college fee. The newer the college, the lower the endowment, and the more dependent on fee income for survival. Two of Oxford's newest colleges, Manchester College for mature students and Rewley House for part-time students, would be amongst the first casualties, as would thus be the university's nascent efforts to attract and accommodate non­traditional students.

Perhaps the most powerful justification for the college fee, however, is also the simplest one. The collegiate system has made the collegiate universities centres of excellence on a global scale. They attract and create industry, employment, and talent, and as national assets are irreplaceable. There is no escaping, however, the fact that supporting excellence is expensive, but not when compared to the far greater cultural and economic loss the country would otherwise experience. To wilfully dismantle British education at its best is to condemn not only higher education but society and the economy to mediocrity and stagnation. The choice between excellence at a cost and a universal levelling at the lowest common denominator is no choice at all.

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