Come down from your ivory towers: Oxford should charge less, not more

The Oxford vice-chancellor is wrong; elite universities should be affordable to all

Comments from Professor Andrew Hamilton, Oxford's vice-chancellor, during his annual oration to the university this week, suggest that top institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge should be able to charge students fees closer to the £16,000 per year “real cost” of a world-class education.

He argues that the introduction of £9,000 tuition fees has not been successful in creating a market within the higher education system because virtually every university is charging the highest price.

Hold on a second, Professor. Why, exactly, is the introduction of a market in higher education in any way desirable? Why should a higher standard of education be bought with higher tuition fees rather than attained by the brightest and best candidates simply because they are the most academically capable? The vice-chancellor's comments mock the existence of a supposed meritocracy within our higher education system and cheapen the issue by making it about his university's bottom line.

According to Prof Hamilton, it's not enough to be a top candidate, to have excellent results, an impressive personal statement, great references and an impeccable interview technique. You have to be prepared to dig yourself much, much deeper in debt with the Student Loans Company and rely on the generosity of financially comfortable parents to qualify for an Oxford education. The case brought against St. Hughes College Oxford by Damien Shannon, after he was instructed to prove that he had sufficient funds to cover tuition fees and living costs, provides a pertinent example of the university's financially selective practices.

Prof Hamilton's plea to introduce fees higher than £9,000 for top institutions would not merely create a market between universities, it would also create a market between pupils. Candidates from disadvantaged areas, from failing schools and from working class backgrounds are already being discouraged from applying to university due to the hike in tuition fees. The substantially higher fees proposed by Prof Hamilton would represent a slammed door to working class candidates, despite his paying lip service to the issue by stating that “price can be no impediment to talent”. I'm not sure which ivory tower Prof Hamilton is currently residing in, but price IS an impediment to talent and to raise prices further will further discourage those from less advantageous backgrounds.

Out of 150 institutions surveyed in 2010, Oxford was found to have the lowest intake of pupils from working class backgrounds (11.5 per cent) in the Russell Group category, with Cambridge trailing a close second at 12.6 per cent. 2012 saw over 60 leading academics, including one from Oxford and another from Cambridge, sign a letter to Education Secretary Michael Gove to express their “continued opposition to a system which will increasingly exclude working class students and others from non-traditional backgrounds and promote higher education as a privilege”. Obstacles to candidates from working class backgrounds and deprived areas achieving the top grades needed to be able to apply for a place at Oxford or Cambridge are already so numerous that Hamilton's call for tuitions fees closer to £16,000 seems crass in its flagrant elitism.

The annual shortfall of £70 million in teaching income that the vice-chancellor bemoans is not a burden that should be placed upon students. Prof Hamilton observes that “excellence in most walks of life does not come cheap” and while that may be true for the university itself, the excellence of candidates applying should have no price, cheap, expensive or otherwise. The curiosity, talent and intellectual potential of applicants should be currency enough to guarantee their places at top institutions. The lack of government funding available to higher education is the core of the issue and should not be addressed through further inflating fees and closing doors on pupils from poorer backgrounds. We need to forget markets and prioritise the availability of a high-quality education to high-achieving candidates who display potential, regardless of family incomes.