Oxbridge: a game for rich kids?

Britain's elite universities have tried to shed the Brideshead image, but financial pressures may force colleges to become, more than ever, bastions of privilege. Judith Judd investigates
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The warning from an Oxford college treasurer that poor students will be priced out of degree courses at the university will raise some wry smiles in less privileged universities.

Oxford, despite determined efforts to shed its Brideshead image and a series of changes to its admissions procedures, has had little success in attracting pupils from poor backgrounds. The proportion of pupils from state schools has actually fallen since 1980 from 50 per cent to just over 43 per cent. Even Cambridge does better, with the proportion of state school pupils roughly matching that from fee-paying schools.

Since independent schools dominate A-level exam league tables and educate one-fifth of sixth-formers, some advantage in Oxbridge entrance is predictable.

But the essentially middle-class character of Oxford is not in doubt. In the recent dispute over increased rents at Pembroke College, Dr Robert Stevens, the Master, told the students that Oxford was bourgeois, and attacked middle-class parents, who had for too long "become accustomed to a free university education".

A survey by the Independent last year found that, while Oxford students were not particularly rich, a substantial number received more than the basic grant and loan.

So why has Jane Hands, treasurer of Somerville College, warned parents in a letter that the grant or loan no longer provide enough money for an Oxford education and suggested that they should take out insurance policies at the age of two to pay for higher education?

The notion that Oxford may become the preserve of the rich is based on some financial presssures that are peculiar to Oxbridge and others that apply to all universities.

Oxford's particular worries are twofold. First is the belief that the Government subsidy to colleges is under threat. Every student at Oxford receives an extra pounds 2,000 a year in tuition fees from the Government towards the extra costs of educating undergraduates in the one-to-one tutorials which are one of the university's most ancient and distinctive traditions.

After years of protest from other universities, the Government is trying to cut back the special grant paid to colleges because they cost more to operate than centralised universities. Two years ago the grant was cut for the first time, by 1 per cent and further cuts are expected.

Each college has its own admissions system, adminstrators and libraries, in addition to those run by the university. Four other universities outside London are collegiate - Durham, Kent, York and Lancaster - but they receive far less.

The second pressure on Oxford is that, though some colleges such as Balliol and St John's are very rich - 11 have endowment incomes of pounds 1m a year and a further five enjoy incomes of between pounds 2 million and pounds 5 million a year - others such as St Peter's and the former women's colleges are very poor. A socialist-style redistribution of wealth has been organised by the university but its success has been limited. Pembroke, for instance, has been forced to raise student rents because of its financial straits.

Already the financial strain of maintaining the college system alongside a central university administration is beginning to show. Some colleges are teaching some students in seminars rather than tutorials.

The result is a commission of inquiry set up by the university to examine whether fundamental changes are needed. Should one-to-one tutorials go? Can the college system survive? Can the wealthiest colleges be persuaded to bail out the poorest?

All these may mean more drastic reform than a conservative university is willing to contemplate. Indeed the university said yesterday that it felt both tutorials and colleges enhanced the value of students' education. A spokesman emphasised that there was no question of the inquiry saying that rich colleges should give money to poor ones, and that it was exploring ways of making the tutorial system more effective and efficient.

Yet the college system is an expensive way to run a university. If the Government persists in its determination to erode the value of its subsidy to college fees, then Oxford may find itself forced to turn to students' parents to make up the difference.

Ministers might welcome that. One much-canvassed solution to the shortage of funds for higher education is that universities should charge top-up fees. Oxbridge would be the ideal place to launch the scheme because a supply of students able and willing to pay would be guaranteed.

Universities are already free to demand extra fees on top of the amount the Government has agreed to fund but none has so far been brave enough to do so. A proposal at the London School of Economics to introduce top- up fees was defeated. Both the Government and vice-chancellors are sensitive to the charge that universities would become more elitist if some or all had top-up fees.

Jane Hands is right to suggest that, unless the Government reforms higher education funding, students from poor backgrounds will find it increasingly difficult to attend Oxford and other elite universities. Students everywhere are struggling to make ends meet on the money they receive from grants and loans.

Student hardship is a national problem. Oxford students are not worse off than their peers. Undergraduates at the university receive the same for living costs as those at other universities, and their fees are paid in the same way. Those at Pembroke are paying no more in rent than those in many other university towns and might well be the envy of London students travelling miles across the city from expensive flats in the suburbs. As the university points out, the cost of living as a student in Oxford is no higher than elsewhere.

Ruth Deech, principal of St Anne's, said: "Oxford is a bargain. The cost of 24 weeks in residence with some meals is pounds 1,400, compared with some London colleges which charge pounds 800 a term in a hall of residence. And there are many perks: travel grants and virtually free vacation residence. It is an easier place for people from a poor background."

The shortage of funds for students is a national, not an Oxford, problem. All three political parties are examining student funding and all are considering how the present loan system might be extended. A group from the London School of Economics has told the Conservatives' manifesto working party that student loans should be privatised. Loans are at present financed by the Treasury. If the money were lent by banks or pension funds, students could borrow more and would be better off while they were at college. There is no evidence that the introduction of loans has deterred poor students: universities have continued to expand since the loan scheme started.

It is clear, however, that either students or their parents will find themselves financing a bigger slice of their higher education in the future than they have in the past. Many middle-class parents are already paying their offspring's living costs at university so that they will not leave college burdened by debt.

As these costs spiral and the Government's contribution to higher education dwindles, growing numbers are likely to follow Miss Hands' advice and take out insurance policies to cover the costs of a degree.