Get donor-parents out of system (1)

April 12, 2002

The "donations for degrees" allegation that led to the resignation of two fellows at Pembroke College, Oxford ("Price of Pembroke scandal is autonomy", THES , March 29) raises serious questions about the integrity of universities' admissions processes. The fact that three other colleges before Pembroke rejected the fake banker's advances is reassuring, but it is important that university admissions are merit-based and seen to be so.

When chancellor Gordon Brown challenged the Oxford admissions system over the rejection of Laura Spence, I was one of many who thought his allegations outrageous and unfounded. I remain of that view. As a member of the education select committee last year, I also argued that the Oxbridge college-based admissions system was essentially sound.

But this latest incident has led me to change my stance, not because of doubts of colleges' ethics but because of the greater problem of donor expectation. Without a change, indignant donor-parents will keep cropping up and the colleges' image will suffer more than their bank balances.

Transferring the admissions process from colleges to the university would ensure that there is no close connection - nor seen to be - between college fundraisers and admissions staff. The university would receive applications, organise central interviews and then allocate successful candidates to colleges according to student preference and college quotas.

Those like the estimable Alan Ryan, who has the ethical strength to combine the New College roles of admissions tutor and chief fundraiser, will oppose radical change. But they will have to do so on the basis of conservatism rather than meritocracy. Ryan was wrong to suggest (Soapbox, THES , March 29) that affirmative-action places were equivalent to bought places. The former compensate for barriers to admission of deserving candidates, the latter break down barriers to undeserving ones.

Evan Harris MP
Oxford West and Abingdon

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