Oxford inequalities exposed

May 2, 2003

Do wealthy colleges give students a richer experience? Claire Sanders reports

Differences in college wealth make the Oxford experience a "myth" and undermine the academic performance of students in poorer colleges, a report from Oxford University Student Union says this week.

The disparities also make it difficult for the university to meet government requirements on access and transparency, says the union's Report into the Provision of Equitable Standards in a Collegiate University .

OUSU president Will Straw said: "We agree with the government position in Widening Participation to Higher Education that it is essential the student knows the cost of higher education and what hardship grants are available.

We expect the university to take on that responsibility and to bring about greater equalisation of colleges."

The report says that the disparities in college wealth mean that students "are far from guaranteed a common educational experience, with detriment not only to their academic performance, but also to their general welfare and financial condition".

The report describes the impact of Oxford's college redistribution scheme as "negligible": "The current redistribution scheme merely ensures that poorer colleges do not cease to operate as institutions."

Instead, the attempt to build up endowments in poorer colleges should be abandoned in favour of allowing receiving colleges to spend the whole of what they get from the scheme as income.

The "injustices of the collegiate system" undermine the claim in the university prospectus for 2004-05 that all colleges are "alike in offering good computing, library, sports and music facilities as well as in providing students with food and accommodation", the report says.

And this disparity has "severe" implications for students from non-traditional backgrounds. Poor students may be able to afford to apply only to cheaper colleges and may even find themselves accepted through the pooling system to an expensive college that they cannot afford. Worse still, students who pay more often receive less.

"It certainly becomes impossible for the university to claim or guarantee any equality of treatment across the colleges or earnestly to meet the government's new requirement that universities will need 'to set out the costs a student is likely to incur over the whole period of their course'," the report says.

Differences in college wealth lead to great variations in hardship funds and bursaries, but the lack of a single administrative body means that government and university funds are also distributed unevenly: "Those administering funds in colleges have very little upon which to judge need for hardship funds relative to that in other colleges."

A spokesperson for Oxford said: "The nature of the collaborations between the university and colleges has evolved over many years, reflecting the independent legal status that every undergraduate college has. The university and colleges already work together on undergraduate admissions, the Oxford bursaries scheme and other matters relating to student support and welfare."

The spokesperson added that in addition to college library and information technology facilities, students could use departmental and university libraries and resources.

Wealth and academic performance

The report makes a number of links between wealth and a college's ranking in the Norrington tables, which rank colleges using degree classifications:

* Seven of the Norrington table's top ten colleges were in the top ten for endowment income and all ten had above average endowment incomes

* Six of the table's bottom ten colleges were in the bottom ten for endowment income

* Of the nine colleges that spend £125,000 a year or more on libraries, six are among the table's top ten and all are in the top 15. And of the five colleges that spend £57,000 a year or less on the library, four are among the bottom five of the table

* Seven of the top ten colleges for fellow-to-student ratios were also in the top ten of the table

* Six of the bottom ten colleges for fellow-to-student ratios were in the bottom ten of the table.

Key disparities

* Wealthy St John's comes out as one of the more affordable colleges, with students in its cheapest rooms paying £1,656.60 for room and food over three terms. Students pay £3,255 at Harris Manchester and £2,846.25 at St Edmund Hall

* Oriel has fewer than five students per tutor, Lincoln has more than 12; Magdalen offers a fellow-to-student ratio of 1:8, whereas at Pembroke the ratio is less than half as good at 1:19

* Almost 80 per cent of second-year undergraduates at wealthier colleges were able to live in college accommodation, compared with only 44 per cent of those studying at poorer colleges

* Magdalen and St John's are comparably sized, wealthy colleges but the difference in the numbers of computers provided is vast, with Magdalen offering less than half the number at St John's

* Christ Church has an annual expenditure of £366,002 on studentships, scholarships, exhibitions, prizes and grants, compared with Wadham's £38,678.

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