Oxford sells out

Oxford's plans to shift its emphasis to privately funded postgraduate courses has been shocking the dons, writes Nick Jackson
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The Independent Online

Controversial plans being considered by Oxford would change the university's emphasis from an institution whose rationale is teaching undergraduates via tutorials, to one providing postgraduate education through classes funded by private fees and sponsorship.

Professor Colin Lucas, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, has announced plans for the number of graduate students to be increased, focusing on overseas students and one-year postgraduate courses. At the moment, there are 1,500 students on taught postgraduate courses at Oxford.

Overseas students pay more than £8,000 for an MA in a humanities subject, and more than £10,000 for an MSc. The number of taught postgraduates has been expanding at the rate of 200 places a year over the past few years, and the university is calling for this to be accelerated.

The plan is meeting with a mixed response. Some dons are strongly opposed. Dr Oswin Murray, who runs the graduate centre of Balliol College, is concerned that increasing the numbers of overseas postgraduates will mean that British students lose out. But Andrew Dilnot, the principal of St Hugh's College, is in favour. "It's a particular joy to see overseas students around college," he says. "It encourages a cosmopolitan atmosphere."

The reason that so many graduate students come from overseas is that only a tiny minority of British students are given funding. According to Dr Murray, who was the chairman of the graduate committee of all the colleges, some 25 per cent of new academics being employed in the UK are from abroad. "We're moving towards having a predominantly foreign academic community here," he says.

There is concern that the drive to recruit one-year postgraduate students could affect the quality of education for undergraduates, who would necessarily receive less individual attention. Indeed, undergraduates are already being told that fewer of their tutorials will be taken by fellows and that they will be increasingly taught in larger classes. They have vigorously resisted this. The university has claimed that the cut in undergraduate teaching time is needed to give dons more time for research and paperwork. But in fact it looks as though much of this time will be spent teaching graduate students.

Anthony Smith, President of Magdalen College, says that although the one-year courses being proposed by Professor Lucas are taught courses and will need more teaching, they won't require more teachers. "With more undergraduate tutorials being taken by postdoctorate and graduate students rather than fellows, these people will be freed up to teach one-year postgraduate students." Dr Murray agrees. "It is intended that the teaching emphasis should move towards teaching graduates," he says.

The one-year postgraduate students could also suffer under the new plan. Dan Paskins, vice-president of graduates at Oxford University Student Union, believes that international taught postgraduate students could be used merely as a cash cow if they are not given enough attention.

The university administration pockets most of the overseas students' fees; the colleges charge a smaller college fee on top.

According to Paskins, the university administration makes seven to 10 times more money from international graduate students than it does from British undergraduates, but the difference for the colleges is far less. And in the last 20 years, the colleges have spent £100m on graduate students, while the university has spent only £2m.

The colleges, therefore, shoulder most of the financial burden for more graduate students, but the university administration takes most of the income. Tension between the colleges and the university administration over the issue has reached a new high. "It is the colleges that have paid for the distinctive characteristics of an Oxford graduate career," says Dr Murray. "The university has been unaware of the cost, and the uncontrolled expansion proposed causes problems. Some colleges are unable to accommodate all of the graduates. Others are refusing to do so to preserve the lifestyle of the college."

It is certainly an issue that is being driven by the university's need for extra funds. As long as the Government refuses to provide adequate funding, say the dons, this kind of reform will be necessary. "This is an issue that is worth sticking in front of the Government's nose," says Dr Murray.