Britain's elite universities are mysterious institutions, never more so than when it comes to the finances of Oxford and Cambridge universities and their constituent colleges. But this week's Oxford tale is simple to grasp. For £300,000, Pembroke College, Oxford, would, it seems, invite its law department to accept an extra student with good but not top-rate A levels.
Bending the rules in this way is wrong, and neither Pembroke nor Oxford has tried to defend it - though Alan Ryan raises some cant-busting questions. But the situation that caused the offer to be made - a college with all the pomp of a medieval foundation but too little of the wealth - will not be cured so easily. One approach would be to reduce college autonomy at both Oxford and Cambridge and turn them into department-based universities with superior halls of residence. If that is too adventurous, it would be better to admit that colleges need more money and find a way to provide it than to be caught in irregular forms of fundraising. In the Pembroke case, the offer seems to have been to create an extra place in the law course, not to bump a more deserving candidate off it. The sum of money suggested would pay for many students from poor backgrounds to study at Oxford or make possible substantial improvements to facilities, eclipsing the all-too-modest postcode premium for poor students or the extra fees of overseas students.
It is not acceptable in this country to admit students on the basis of parental wealth - although US universities allow preferential admission to the children of alumni, to in-state students and to many other groups, and in Australia, some full-fee students are allowed in alongside fixed-fee ones.
Recent British budgets have done much to make significant donations to universities more attractive for people who can afford them. But universities are getting more expensive and hungrier. They need more robust procedures for raising extra money in ways that do not invite scandal.