As universities wait to hear if the government is going to slash tuition fees – and thus their income – in a bid to win young voters, the rumour rippling through our esteemed seats of learning is that, if this goes ahead, Oxford and Cambridge will opt out and go private.
Whether this is a good thing or not depends on which side of the fence you’re sitting but for Oxbridge to maintain their status as world-class institutions, something has to change.
Tuition fees are currently capped at £9,250 a year. However, a spokesperson for Cambridge University told The Guardian that each of their students costs £18,500 a year. You don’t have to be a Maths graduate to know those figures don’t add up. Oxbridge attract quality teachers, globally-renowned visiting lecturers and specialise in tutorial-led teaching.
Even if you take teaching out of the equation, you really can’t compare a degree from Oxbridge, with its prestige and salary returns to a degree from Thames Valley University. Yet the cost is exactly the same.
The Oxbridge branding is such that it lends itself to following the Ivy League colleges in the US where cost dictates the service and the end product. Like most things in life, you get what you pay for and, looked at objectively, being tied to a fee which has been made up by politicians, is daft.
But there are concerns. Stepping out into the private sector could expanding further the gulf further between rich and poor. Those who can afford it will have a better chance of getting into Oxbridge than those who can’t.
On the flipside, the universities could manage their own finances and ensure that the extra income helped pay for those who are less well-off but rich in ability. Oxbridge will still want to attract the very best students and they know that those come from all walks of life.
The figure of £15,000 has been bandied around but as not all degree courses cost the same (for example, the laboratory resources required for a Chemistry degree are more expensive than the books needed for an English degree) some subjects could help subsidise others. Oxbridge would work just like any other business – distributing their money in ways that works best for them.
Going private could be what the slumping British education system needs.
Despite Oxford and Cambridge being ranked number one and two respectively in the Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings 2018, Britain is rapidly losing its status as the international student’s first choice to the US; and other parts of the globe are starting to look more appealing than us.
The uncertainty over Brexit doesn’t help with foreign youngsters fearing that if they move to Britain, they might have to up sticks and leave as soon as they finish their studies.
Oxbridge have also done things their way. With their separate application system and bespoke entrance exams, they select the students that suit them, often irrespective of A Level grades and traditional qualifications.
By breaking away from the pack, they will continue to work as an elite and by doing so will remain at the top and in demand. If they go private I’m sure it wouldn’t be long before other Russell Group universities follow.
If the Tories are intent on reducing tuition fees the shake-up will come. I’ll put money on it.
Stephen Spriggs, Managing Director, William Clarence Education
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