Excellence into equality does go

October 31, 1997

If Cambridge is to keep its college fees it must admit more state school students, Anne Campbell argues

MY FELLOW MP Phil Woolas argues that new Labour is not against excellence but adds that Labour MPs will not put up with "feathering privilege". I think he is right on both counts.

At first sight, the college fee system, which gives an extra Pounds 1,820 each year to every student educated at a Cambridge college, is hard to defend. The defence is harder because of the iniquities of the admissions system, the result of which is to give half the undergraduate places available each year to the nine per cent of students whose parents have already paid out thousands of pounds to educate them in an elitist public school system.

Much of the attraction of the top public schools must be to ensure better preparation for Oxbridge entry, thereby gaining access into a highly subsidised higher education system, acknowledged to be one of the best in the world. Those students who do manage to get to Oxbridge from a less privileged background also find the experience worthwhile. One of my constituents described to me how he had been admitted to Fitzwilliam College with qualifications gained through part-time study at a technical college, well below the average standard of undergraduate entry. Through the efforts of his college supervisor, he quickly made up lost ground and went on to play a major role in the development of the scanning electron microscope. These instruments are now to be found in research laboratories throughout the world and have helped to create many jobs at Leo Electron Optics in the UK and elsewhere. This would seem to offer a very worthwhile return on the investment in my constituent's education.

Colleges contribute to research through research fellowships funded by their endowments and by facilitating interdisciplinary communication and networking in a friendly environment. Trinity College is one of the few which has a sufficiently large endowment to subsidise other poorer colleges as well as funding high-class research. Its financial contribution to the Newton Institute led to a British first - the solution to Fermat's last theorem. This was a proof which had eluded the world's finest mathematicians for more than three and a half centuries, yet the facilities at Cambridge helped Andrew Wiles to score a British triumph.

It would be wholly wrong to damage Britain's ability to contribute to such ground-breaking research, but equal access to the facilities which are offered by the system must be a pre-condition of its continuation.

Some colleges, notably Kings, Fitzwilliam and Churchill, now admit around three-quarters of their students from the state sector. Others doubt their ability to do the same since, they say, these colleges are already creaming off the best and there are too few state schools which provide the necessary preparation. If this is true, it is an unhappy reflection on the state of our publicly funded education system. The evidence is, however, that many bright state school pupils fail to apply, since the perception of Oxbridge as a privileged predominantly public school institution persuades them that it is not for them.

Efforts are being made to redress the balance. The Target Schools Scheme, run by Cambridge students, this year sent undergraduates to meet students in their local state schools to talk about their university experiences and to encourage more of them to apply. This is a scheme which deserves support. In addition, a more proactive role by colleges to make contact with those schools which have never achieved an Oxbridge entry would produce a better mix of students.

Colleges are worried that in the interests of equality, a new Labour government might recommend the complete abolition of the college fee. If this were to happen most colleges would find it difficult to meet their existing contractual obligations. As the colleges are private institutions they would then be faced with clear choices. One of those choices would be to break away from a state-supported system of higher education. Already college bursars are arguing that colleges should be able to charge top-up fees to those who can afford them and to students from overseas. For the colleges it offers a more secure source of income than reliance on the public purse and the generosity of the Secretary of State for Education and Employment.

It would do nothing, however, to meet the Government's objectives of equal access and accountability. There would be a strong disincentive to move towards a greater proportion of students from the state sector, because these students would be less likely to be able to contribute.

Quite apart from improvements which need to be made in the admissions system, the review of the college fee does represent some opportunities as well as threats. It is time that the university and the colleges took a close look at their relationship to see whether reforms could be made to improve the experience for students. One student, reading English, told me that she never attended lectures because her college teaching system was out of phase with lectures being delivered by the university department. There is a clear need for reforms here. This reform could be encouraged by a Government decision to deal only with the university and not with all the colleges separately as it does now.

A centralised system of student welfare, working alongside the tutorial system, would enable the provision of a more professional service, better able to cope with the well-publicised cases of student stress. In addition, an admissions system in which there is co-operation between departments and the colleges would lead to better planning and a more coherent approach. Such issues should be examined by a working party with strong student representation set up to consider the effects of these proposals.

I believe that excellence can be preserved and even improved, but this is not to argue for the status quo. More cost-effective systems and structures should be examined and I have confidence that Cambridge and Oxford universities will respond positively to the new Government's agenda.

Anne Campbell is Labour MP for Cambridge.

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