To stick, scrap or juggle?

November 21, 1997

The Oxbridge college fees debate is coming to the boil. Harriet Swain reports on the issues at stake

Ministers deciding the fate of the Oxbridge college fee are considering three main options.

The first is to stick with the status quo, which is defended by some peers but believed to be unpopular with higher education minister Baroness Blackstone and senior members of the government's higher education committee. This means continuing to pay about Pounds 35 million to the two universities to help support their ancient buildings, libraries, welfare services and tutorial teaching.

Sir Ron Dearing's committee said it was necessary to review the college fee, taking into account that variations in the level of public funding for teaching should be based on definite differences in provision and good use of resources.

Other universities also resent the extra money Oxford receives, from the London School of Economics, which claims to work as well as Oxbridge with less money, to members of the Coalition of Modern Universities, which say the money could be better spent elsewhere.

Despite high-level and persistent lobbying, this option is unlikely to be approved.

The second option is to scrap the fee. This remains a possibility, although it would be difficult to do without colleges insisting on their right to levy fees from students instead.

The government, which has repeatedly restated its opposition to top-up fees, will be unwilling to see extra charges introduced for students because of the threat to improving the number of state school pupils at Oxbridge.

Scrapping fees would lead to redundancies - some colleges are already putting recruitment on hold until the outcome of the fee inquiry. It could even lead to smaller colleges going bankrupt.

Prime minister Tony Blair is believed to oppose dropping fees.

In its advice to the government, the Higher Education Funding Council for England said Oxford and Cambridge should be able to keep their "special character" under any changes.

The third and most likely option is to give the college fee money, at its present level or slightly reduced, to the university rather than to the individual colleges.

Currently, the universities have 40 per cent of their HEFCE grant lopped off to balance the university services colleges provide. If colleges were to lose the fee, this 40 per cent would be restored.

So the quibble is in fact about 60 per cent of the fee. The government is likely to grant at least part of this in recognition of the expenses Oxbridge colleges incur because of their old and listed buildings. London colleges already receive some extra money for similar reasons.

Both Baroness Blackstone and education secretary David Blunkett stressed recently that they do not wish to see poorer colleges badly affected by any change. This may involve stricter redistribution of money from richer to poorer colleges, which both universities are already investigating.

The advantage for the government of incorporating fees into the HEFCE grant is also that it may be easier to reduce the extra subsidy gradually in future, without the fuss this review has generated.

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