Oxbridge gives case for its fees

October 24, 1997

IT REPRESENTS a third of the money withdrawn from further education colleges this year for growth and roughly matches the spending by research councils so far on BSE. But is the Pounds 35 million in college fees given yearly to Oxford and Cambridge universities worth it?

The Higher Education Funding Council for England is expected to provide an answer next month. It is discussing the nature of college expenditure with universities, particularly "the claims made about the quality of education provided by the tutorial system".

Oxford and Cambridge argue that the benefits are not easily examined in cash terms but that their removal would undermine Oxbridge. A spokesman for Oxford University said: "They constitute a vital element of what's special about Oxford, which is to provide a range of college services and the tutorial system."

Taking into account reductions in HEFCE block grants at university level, the public pays an extra Pounds 1,620 per year for every student educated at a Cambridge college and Pounds 1,305 extra on every student in an Oxford college.

The tutorial system, by which academics teach just two or three students, is a prime justification. Elsewhere students are taught in groups of ten or 12 and less often.

But little research has been done into what the system offers, although it is likely to be discussed in the report now under preparation by Peter North, former vice chancellor of Oxford.

George Reid, chairman of the fees committee at Cambridge, said: "It gives students the advantage of being able to talk to someone about their own problems and they don't have to wrestle with these things themselves."

This applies both to students' academic work and to their welfare, with chaplains, deans and nurses on hand.

The college system also allows undergraduates of various disciplines and at different stages in their academic careers to mix. College libraries often open 24 hours a day and ensure the particular books needed are bought.

Oxford and Cambridge highlight low drop-out rates, high employment rates, and good scores in both teaching quality assessment and the research assessment exercise as points in their favour. Oxford came top in the RAE and Cambridge second.

While Oxbridge has a high private school intake, they claim to promote access. They also boast a strong international reputation. They say they already use endowment money and have no "pot of gold" should the fee money be withdrawn. Fee rises have not kept pace with salaries and colleges are eating into endowment money.

But precise figures for how the fee money is spent are hard to obtain. Individual colleges choose how they spend it. At St John's College, Cambridge, for example, about 60 per cent goes on teaching costs, about 15 per cent on the college library and 25 per cent towards maintaining buildings.

Cambridge University Student Union opposes abolition of college fees because of the "catastrophic effect this would have on colleges, particularly smaller colleges". But it also wants a public review into how the college fee is used.

Students at Oxford agree their university still has work to prove value-for-money for the college fee. Simon McDougall, president of Oxford University Student Union, said: "We find it difficult to see how HEFCE could make a reasonable judgement without these kinds of figures."

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