Oxford Union counters elitism with fee cut for working class students

Debates at the Oxford Union have often been controversial. Winston Churchill denounced it as "that abject, squalid, shameless avowal" when in 1933 students passed the motion, "That this house will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country".

Since then it has played host to high-profile speakers such as Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama and even Kermit the Frog.

Now the Oxford Union debating society - which acted as a springboard for the political careers of William Hague, Tony Benn and Michael Heseltine - has reduced its fees for poorer students as part of a drive to tackle its elitist image.

Oxford freshers, who are exempt from tuition fees if their parents earn less than £20,970 a year, will have their life membership fees cut by more than a third from £165 to £105.

Tobi Rufus, the society's treasurer-elect, said about 75 per cent of Oxford's 10,000 students already belonged to the debating society but the cut in fees should ensure that cost would no longer be a barrier for others who wanted to join. Mr Rufus, a 20-year-old law student from Hartford College, whose parents moved to Britain in the 1960s from Nigeria, said students from all backgrounds should be able to "enjoy the full Oxford experience". He admitted the union had struggled to shake off a perception that it was elitist, but said this was based on the opinions of those outside the society.

"I come from a very ordinary background and I'm from an ethnic minority. I went to a state comprehensive and then did my A-levels at a further education college," he said.

"When I first came up as a fresher I expected the whole of Oxford to be full of posh people but it really wasn't like that, I was very pleasantly surprised. We are like any other university and the union reflects that mix.

"It is a lot of money to join but it's definitely worth it. I'd never done debating before I got to Oxford. I always wanted to join because I had been quite political at college but once I attended my first debate I was completely hooked."

In the coming term, the union will hear speakers including Clint Eastwood, Wycliffe Jean, Clare Short, Tony Martin and Madeleine Albright. In previous years the society has heard from such figures as Yasser Arafat, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Michael Jackson and O J Simpson.

The reduction in fees was the idea of Marcus Walker, the president, who was unhappy to discover that many poorer students had been priced out.

"I met some friends of a friend who weren't members of the union so I asked them why not," he said. "I wondered whether they might think the speakers weren't good enough or wanted us to change things. But they all said they liked the sound of the union just as it was - it was just the cost that was keeping them out. Most of them weren't paying the full tuition fees so I thought why not reduce the membership fee for these students.

Mr Walker, 22, who is studying for a post-graduate degree in history at Oriel College, said: "To be honest I don't think the union is at all elitist or really needs to change what it does. The real problem is that because of our rising costs we have had to gradually put up our membership fees to what is, by anyone's standards, quite a high figure.

"Maintaining our historic buildings and providing top- quality speakers costs an awful lot of money. But it's definitely worth it."

The Oxford Union has attracted famous speakers since it was founded in 1823 as a forum for discussion within the university.

In 2001 the union cancelled a debate that had been due to be addressed by the historian David Irving - defending his right to free speech - after protests from academics and students.

Mr Irving was branded a "right-wing Nazi polemicist" by a High Court judge during a libel trial in 2000 in which he unsuccessfully defended himself against the American historian Deborah Listadt who had accused him of falsifying history in denying the Holocaust.

Five former British prime ministers have been officers of the union: William Gladstone, Lord Salisbury, Herbert Asquith, Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath.

Other well-known figures who have been prominent in the society include Tariq Ali, Dennis Potter, William Rees-Mogg, Sir Robin Day, Brian Walden, Jeffrey Archer, Jerry Springer and Jeremy Isaacs.

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