Critics see threat to tutorials in Oxford shake-up

February 28, 2008

One-to-one tutorials in the poorest of the University of Oxford's colleges are at risk under a new formula for awarding public money, academics have warned.

Allocations are currently calculated according to student numbers, but a new Joint Resource Allocation Mechanism (JRAM) will place more importance on the research activities of the academics that the colleges employ.

Colleges such as Pembroke, Keble, Hertford, St Catherine's, St Edmund Hall and St Anne's all stand to lose more than £200,000 a year as a direct result of the JRAM - and they are all already among the university's poorest colleges.

Those likely to gain by more than £700,000 a year include Nuffield and All Souls. Neither takes undergraduates and both are among the university's top four wealthiest colleges. All Souls declared £236 million in endowments last year, while Pembroke had £37 million.

The JRAM will be introduced over ten years and the university has promised that internal taxation will ensure that less well-endowed colleges can maintain provision. But academics said cuts are coming at the end of a decade of reduction in public subsidy to poorer colleges.

"Some of the colleges have seen a relative loss compared with the rest and now they'll be getting another ten years of it," said one academic. "The very poorest colleges will struggle to provide their core activities. The discrepancy between the wealthiest and poorest, which is already enormous, will widen under the new JRAM."

Some figures within the university claim the move is a disguised attempt to undermine its expensive tutorial system and to make colleges more compliant, although Oxford's strategic plan, published this month, said the tutorial system was "strongly valued".

"Some colleges already struggle to provide tutorials," one source said. "This is creating a civil war between and within colleges. There are those who think customised, Socratic education is still worthwhile and those who advocate production-line methods of teaching."

The university's Conference of Colleges voted on the new formula last year. Fourteen colleges, which together account for almost half the undergraduate population, voted against with 31 voting in favour. Motions require 75 per cent support, so the JRAM was not adopted.

Despite this, the university council decided it would use the JRAM model, the first time it has overridden a Conference of Colleges decision.

Giles Henderson, chairman of the Conference of Colleges and master of Pembroke College, summarised the opposition response in a letter that said the JRAM would produce "perverse incentives".

"Colleges other than the wealthy will have to pursue incentives that are educationally perverse and by no means desirable, eg, lower science quotas and recruiting more international students simply for financial reasons," he wrote.

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