Education: Oxford denies exploiting civil service to win bigger share of grant cash

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The Independent Online
Oxford University was last night accused by a former college principal of 'a form of corruption' in defending the extra funds colleges receive for fees.

Judith Judd, Education Editor, reports on the admission by Sir Christopher Ball, negotiator with the Government over college fees in the Eighties, that he exploited civil servants' feebleness to ensure that the colleges benefited.

As peers debated whether Oxbridge should keep the extra pounds 35m in fees which it receives to fund tuition and libraries in individual colleges, Oxford attacked Sir Christopher who was warden (principal) of Keble College.

The allegation of corruption in the setting of college fees was "gratuitous", the university said.

Sir Christopher said in a statement that the colleges began to receive fees from the Government 30 years ago. At the end of the Seventies, the two universities agreed that increases in fees should be controlled.

"The agreement proved beneficial to Oxbridge since the Department of Education was a feeble negotiator and for some time allowed Oxbridge fees to increase at a rate faster than inflation," his statement said.

"Although I understand that the negotiations have been tougher since I ended my stint as chairman of the Oxford fees committee in 1988, there is little doubt that the Oxbridge colleges have gained enormous financial benefit as a result of the public funding of what until then had been private fees."

Oxford argues that the colleges need fees to preserve the tutorial system. But Sir Christopher, who is now chairman of the National Campaign for Learning, said that slow learners, not very bright Oxbridge undergraduates, needed tutorials.

Colleges could cope with the gradual ending of fees by using the wealth of the college endowments and the university's fund-raising strength.

"I have come to believe that it is bad for these two universities to be defending the indefensible; it is a form of corruption and I am one of those who stand in the dock," Sir Christopher said.

"We did not intend wrong, but our own ability, coupled with the feebleness of those whose business it was to defend the public interest, have led to an embarrassing anomaly."

The university said: "Any talk of corruption in the process of settling college fees is clearly gratuitous. Were the college fee income to be removed, this would cause severe damage to the collegiate university - not least to Keble College, which has a relatively low endowment and currently receives some pounds 1.6m in annual fee with an overall income just over pounds 4m."

The vice-chancellors of Oxford and Cambridge had seen Dr Kim Howells, the education minister, on Tuesday "in a serious and cordial atmosphere" and were "confident therefore of a fair hearing".