Price of Pembroke scandal is autonomy

March 29, 2002

Oxford University is to reduce the power of its colleges through a new code of practice for admissions after Pembroke College was caught offering places for cash.

The Rev John Platt and Mary-Jane Hilton resigned as fellows of the college earlier this week after they told a Sunday Times reporter posing as a banker that the college might create an extra place on a law degree for his son.

Jane Minto, head of admissions at Oxford, said: "We need a formal code of practice that involves greater cooperation between the colleges. Tutors in a particular subject from across the colleges have to ensure that the university as a whole takes the best candidates." Ms Minto said that applicants, particularly the non-traditional applicants that Oxford is keen to attract, often worried that their choice of college would disadvantage them. "We have to take that burden off people," she said.

The code could erode the colleges' fiercely guarded control over their admissions. The ratio of state to independent-school candidates varies significantly between colleges.

Oxford's vice-chancellor Colin Lucas said: "I am appalled by these allegations. Such actions would contravene all the principles on which our admissions process is based. There must be only one criterion for winning a place at Oxford, and that is individual excellence."

Giles Henderson, master of the college, said: "As the new master of Pembroke, I wish to emphasise in the strongest possible terms my commitment, and that of the college, to the selection of students being made solely on the basis of academic merit and potential."

John Craig, the student union vice-president for access, said: "With higher education funding increasingly squeezed, the temptations are there. We must be vigilant against the threat of creeping privatisation."

Mike Smithson, director of Oxford's development office, said: "I have just issued a circular to staff stressing that as fundraisers, we cannot get involved in admissions decisions." Mr Smithson, who has raised funds for Oxford and for Cambridge, said he had been approached by donors seeking places for their children. "My heart always sinks when I hear a donor has a 16-year-old child. Donors have to be rewarded in other ways, perhaps naming a building after them," he said.

In December, banker Philip Keevil resigned as a fundraiser for Trinity College, Oxford, after the university refused his son a place. That sparked a debate on how far universities should go to attract funds. Mr Smithson said: "American universities make a lot of money from alumni and do offer places to the children of donors. But the culture there is different."

Pembroke, although one of Oxford's oldest colleges, is also one of its poorest. Tutors from equally cash-strapped colleges refused the Sunday Times deal.

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