Oxford students who take socially useful jobs could get free tuition

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Students at Oxford could be exempt from fees if they later go into "socially useful" jobs, under a blueprint to be considered by the university.

In its submission to Lord Browne's review of student financing, Oxford University has called for the cap on fees – currently at £3,225 a year – to be lifted so universities can set their own fees.

However, in an interview with The Oxford Student newspaper, university finance bosses outlined a plan for aid to graduates who go into less well-paid jobs – like teaching and social work.

Those graduates could apply to have their fees paid by a fund, which would be set up with donations from former alumni.

"You go out to donors and alumni and say will you support a pot of money for, say, social workers and they would support that," said Lesley Simms, the university's head of planning and resource allocation.

"The idea would be that the university would use that funding to then write off fees for people who went into those particular professions."

Ms Simms added: "It's one thing to say 'Yes, if you go to Oxford or Cambridge, you come out with a higher average salary.'

"That's a good thing but it's not all of it because we actually want people to go into the intrinsically worthwhile stuff: the teachers and the social workers and the people who make the world go round."

Anthony Monaco, pro-vice-chancellor for planning and resource allocation, said: "I think that's a very important thing so that people don't feel they have to go for a higher-paid job just because they have a loan to pay.

"I think that what we can be clear about is we would not support a system where the repayment of the fee did not take into account the income of the graduate."

He said the fund "may not be so specific – it may just say people can apply for the fund based on the justification of the job that they're taking is lower paid and socially important".

"It doesn't have to be a specific pot for a specific career," he said. "It's the principle that we would support."

University officials emphasised that the proposal was only in an embryonic stage but Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, echoed Oxford's fears over graduates who went into low salary professions when she appeared before a public hearing of Lord Browne's committee yesterday.

"There are some people who say that you should pay higher fees because you earn more money as a graduate," she said. "But there are other areas (of work) you can go into where there is not the same element of pay to sustain that (rise in fees). It is very important to our society in terms of the art and public service that we remember that."

They said they believed their proposal to lift the cap on fees would allow the university to become more independent of government control.

Ms Simms said: "We'd very much like to say that universities are not public sector, they are independent, autonomous charities and we feel they should be allowed to function like that."

They estimate it costs £16,000 a year to teach an undergraduate and that at present they get £8,000 from government funding and fees to cover the cost.

Lifting the cap would allow them to make up the shortfall – although not all the extra £8,000 would necessarily come from fees. They have not put figures on what charges they would make.

Oxford's call for the cap on fees to be lifted came after a similar plea from the Russell Group, which represents 20 of the country's leading higher education research institutions. Its submission said such a move would have to be introduced in stages.

Lord Browne's inquiry is expected to report later this summer.