Oxford's fee legacy

July 3, 1998

The 1977 removal of Oxbridge college students' fees from means testing was not a "daft decision" by then education secretary Shirley Williams (THES, June 26) but an administrative cock-up by the Department of Education and Science, which did not realise that their university fee changes also applied to Oxbridge colleges.

To extricate themselves, the department offered to change its awards regulation so that it specified what sum, being part of the college fee, would attract a mandatory award. This sum would be negotiated annually between the colleges and the department, but the colleges would be free to set their own total fees as previously. In modern parlance, Old Labour was offering top-up fees.

I was a council member of this college at the time and wrote a paper urging acceptance. It opens: "I regard this question as one of the most important that has come before the council during my membership at least, and urge the council to consider it with great care. My reason for thinking this is that our long-term danger of coming to some arrangement which would prejudice our freedom of action is very great, and we might be tempted to solve the immediate problem at the expense of our future independence".

That is exactly what happened. My plea went unheeded. The colleges rejected top-up fees, insisting that their whole fee should be mandatory, with the inevitable result that the department embarked on a long-term strategy to bring the Oxbridge colleges under the same control as universities in general. It has taken them just 21 years and three Acts of Parliament, 1988, 1992 and 1998.

A. W. F. Edwards Gonville and Caius College Cambridge

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