Why I believe our student bursaries will help keep Oxford open to all

December 17, 2004

It is nothing new for a vice-chancellor to declare that his or her institution is "world class". So you will not be surprised that I consider maintaining this status crucial to Oxford University's competitive future as we progress through our strategic planning exercise.

Today, Oxford, along with Cambridge, still appears in the top ten global university rankings, with The Times Higher recently placing Oxford fifth in the world and number one in Europe.

This is a remarkable testimony to all those members of our staff who have committed their talents and loyalties through a prolonged period of serious underfunding.

But there is no doubt that financial viability and access to high-quality physical resources play their part in distinguishing the "good" from the "internationally competitive".

For this reason, our priorities since I started at Oxford at the beginning of this term have been to grow the revenue from the university's already highly successful entrepreneurial activities and exploit our potential to increase our philanthropic income.

However, adequate physical and financial resources are merely necessary conditions for any university that wishes to be identified as world class; the sufficient condition is the high academic calibre and potential of its people - staff and students - who generate and disseminate the knowledge that is the pure product of higher education.

That is why we were determined that the new undergraduate bursary scheme that we announced last week should be one of the most generous on offer to British students.

For those from low-income families, Oxford Opportunity Bursaries will be worth up to £10,000 over three years or £13,000 for those on a four-year course.

This means that, based on average living costs during term times in the city, such students would not need to find any money upfront to study at Oxford. They should be able to graduate with just the standard loan for fees to be repaid through the tax system once they reach a certain earnings threshold.

Furthermore, individual colleges will still offer a full range of academic scholarships along with other funding to help students who run into financial difficulties during their course.

At this time when we are planning to increase course fees to £3,000 - subject to approval by the Office for Fair Access - we are sending a strong message that Oxford is open to the most talented students in the UK, regardless of their family circumstances.

UK students who meet our entry standards must be able to come to Oxford irrespective of their financial situation. Merit, not money, must be the key to entry and we will not compromise our entry standards.

We need the money these fees will bring, but it will still not be enough.

Top international research universities are costly to run.

Independent calculations show that Oxford subsidises the cost of undergraduate teaching by an estimated £28 million a year and the cost of its research activities by £68 million. And this is despite the fact that our teaching staff already bear a teaching load that is significantly heavier than that at the Ivy League universities in North America.

This funding shortfall has to be met from somewhere and the university is therefore running down its reserves, borrowing and deferring annual maintenance and investment in the capital stock of the university.

So, as we look ahead to the corporate plan that we will publish next summer, we must ensure that we find innovative and sustainable ways to meet the necessary condition for world-class status of financial security while also satisfying the crucial sufficient condition of attracting and retaining the best people at every level. Without them, the best infrastructure in the world could never be utilised to its true potential.

John Hood
Vice-chancellor
Oxford University

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