This weekend it was reported that an Oxford college – St Hugh’s – has refused to award a place to an applicant because it thought he wasn’t rich enough. At least, that’s what the headlines said, and…well, it’s sort of true. It’s just that that’s also quite a misleading way of putting it. A headline reading “Oxford college ‘sued for discriminating against the poor’” conjures up – perhaps intentionally – images of fusty, classically-educated dons deciding whether potential students are “the right sort” over port and roast guinea-fowl. Which, needless to say, isn’t actually what happened.
Damien Shannon (the applicant in question) was awarded a place to study for a Masters in Economic History at St Hugh’s College, but was unable to secure any funding to pay his fees or living costs. The course fees were £8,000 and the college estimates that students will need around £13,000 to live on, so they require that self-funding graduate students have access to around £21,000 in funds to ensure they won’t have to drop out of the course for lack of money.
Shannon had managed to take out a career development loan for £10,000 but hadn’t managed to get hold of any further money (and his parents weren’t able to offer financial help) [Edit: Shannon writes below the line that in fact the career development loan was for fees only, and that he had £9,000 available to him for living costs], so the college refused to let him enrol on the grounds that they didn’t think it was likely he’d be able to afford to complete the course. Shannon is now suing the college, claiming discrimination.
I can see why you might argue – as Shannon’s local MP Hazel Blears does –that £13,000 is an excessively high estimate of minimum living costs, although her assertion that, “[i]t is ludicrous that a student deemed to be of sufficient academic merit is deemed incapable of budgeting to ensure they have enough money to live on” is simply rubbish. Being a gifted historian – even an economic historian – doesn’t remotely entail any particular talent at estimating how much money you’ll need to live and study in an unfamiliar city. There’s certainly also good reason to be concerned about the current lack of funding for postgraduate study, and its potential to put poorer students off pursuing academic careers in the arts. But what I can’t see is how this can remotely be considered to be an instance of discrimination on the part of the college. St Hugh’s didn’t reject Shannon because they only want rich students to apply; they rejected him because they didn’t want a situation where he got halfway through his course, paid his fees (or at least a substantial chunk of them) and then had to drop out because he ran out of money. In that instance, it wouldn’t be St Hugh’s College which suffered a severe material loss, but Shannon himself. This rather strongly suggests that what the college is trying to do is not to shut out poor would-be postgraduates, but to only admit people they think stand a decent chance of being able to complete their studies.
The funding situation for would-be postgraduate students in the UK is dire. We can – and should – call for that situation to be improved, but taking academic institutions to court for doing nothing more than responding to the financial climate in which they currently operate seems a fairly textbook case of shooting the messenger.