Dons tell Oxford to go private

February 21, 1997

THE MASTER of an Oxford college has accused his university of burying its head in the sand over the future of higher education.

Robert Stevens, master of Pembroke College, sparked controversy this week by signing a letter with nine other dons suggesting privatisation of the university.

Published in The Oxford Magazine as an open letter to vice chancellor Peter North, head of a commission inquiring into the future of Oxford, it states: "We urge, in the strongest possible way, the commission to arrange for a study of the financial and other consequences of charging top-up fees, on the one hand, and of going wholly independent on the other."

Dr Stevens, who has spent most of his academic life in the United States, said the group felt compelled to write because of lack of debate on Oxford's role in higher education funding problems.

"Everyone is keeping their heads below the parapet hoping something will turn up," he said. He attacked "English middle and upper-class refusal to make a contribution to higher education".

The ten academics argue that some privatisation is inevitable and that preserving Oxford's excellence may only be possible by becoming independent. This would mean abandoning commitment to national salary scales for the best researchers.

Peter Mirfield, a law fellow at Jesus College who drafted the letter, said scholarships for the less well off would be essential.

But John Flemming, warden of Wadham College, Oxford, said this would mean "playing Robin Hood". Colleges would need to charge such high fees to support the number of these bursaries that only relatively few students would be able to afford to pay, creating a vicious circle.

In America we speak out if something is wrong but that seems to be alien to English tradition."

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