Outsider's manifesto

February 28, 2003

Enough old boys - Oxford needs a change, says Sandi Toksvig, who has entered the chancellor's race

It is not something that has occurred to me before, but I am hoping to follow in the Duke of Wellington's footsteps. That does not mean that I plan to become Master-General of Ordinance, play the violin or cause a stir at Waterloo, but I have put myself up for election to the chancellorship of Oxford University. It is not mentioned in most accounts of Wellington's life that he was the last non-Oxford graduate to take on this august and symbolic position, a position held for 800 years by men - generally Oxford men, more specifically Balliol men. Indeed, six of the past eight chancellors have been graduates of Balliol. So why change the system? Why not elect Chris Patten (Balliol) or Lord Bingham of Cornhill (Balliol)? Well, because it is time for a rethink.

In its 2001 election manifesto the Labour Party declared: "We will not introduce 'top-up' fees and have legislated to prevent them." Less than two years later, the Labour government has developed manifesto amnesia. The higher education white paper proposes a combination of tuition and top-up fees that will result in many graduates leaving university with debts of mortgage-size proportions. The very government that abolished maintenance grants in 1997 will reintroduce them for the poorest student. That's OK then, except that only 15 per cent of all students will benefit, and they will get a measly £20 a week. Try living on that.

This week Steve Machin, director of the Centre for the Economics of Education and Skills, issued a report making clear how divisive top-up fees would be. He reports that in 1991-92, 13 per cent of children from the lowest social class went to university. Ten years later, after the introduction of tuition fees and the abolition of student grants, this figure has gone down to 7 per cent. If universities favour the wealthy now, how much worse will it become under the proposed system? Do we want a system where less able affluent children benefit at the expense of poor children? The Oxford University Student Union thinks not.

Under the leadership of Will Straw, OUSU has asked all candidates for the chancellorship to sign a statement supporting a "wholly meritocratic system of higher education based on academic ability rather than ability to pay".

Of the three official candidates, I am so far the only one to have signed the statement.

Lord Bingham has said he approves of top-up fees (he also thinks judges need more money), and Patten has said he will not rule them out. Not one of these eminent old boys has said that you should go to university if you are bright enough rather than just rich enough. Undergraduates do not vote in the election of the chancellor, but I think it would be a poor start in office for 16,000 students to feel poorly represented.

There is no argument that British universities need more money. Funding is needed not simply to assist undergraduates but also to retain academic staff and prevent a massive brain drain abroad. Everyone agrees. That is not the issue.

The question is who is going to pay the bill? The only answer has to be a fair and progressive taxation system. Top-up fees are not the answer.

Oxford won't gain more money through such funding. Finance will merely come from the students rather than from the government.

There are a lot of critical education issues that require attention. The position of chancellor of Oxford, although largely symbolic, is a tremendous opportunity for someone to help facilitate the rethink of education required to meet the needs of the 21st-century student. It's time for someone to stand up and be counted.

Sandi Toksvig, a graduate of Girton College, Cambridge, is a comedian, broadcaster and author.

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