Shooting the messenger

This post was written by Owen on January 20, 2013
Posted Under: Education

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.

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Reader Comments

Damien Shannon

If you are going to make claims about me, please take the time to ensure they are accurate before publishing.

I had approximately £9,000 available to meet my anticipated costs of living, plus the loan for fees. The policy of the University is that unless you can prove you have £12,900, even if you can equally prove that you do not need it, you cannot be admitted.

As for your wider point, for once I am going to agree with the economist’s phrase, ‘caveat emptor’. Let the buyer beware. Oxford is not going people a favour by refusing to let them in for not meeting a wealth test. If they can pay their fees, but not fund their private living costs, then that is their own stupid fault.

#1 
Written By Damien Shannon on January 20th, 2013 @ 11:09 pm

Apologies for any factual inaccuracies, though in my defence my sources for the facts of the case were the reports in the Guardian, Telegraph and HuffPo, so you might want to get in touch with them too. As for the caveat emptor point, I disagree. That runs the risk of letting universities get money out of would-be postgrads who pay the fees but then can’t afford the living costs and drop out, with the university then pocketing the fees and not having to incur the teaching costs – it seems to create quite a big perverse incentive.

#2 
Written By Owen on January 20th, 2013 @ 11:33 pm
Damien Shannon

“Shannon had managed to take out a career development loan for £10,000 but hadn’t managed to get hold of any further money”

That is not true, and it was not claimed in the Guardian or Telegraph articles, rather, it is what people have reasonably but incorrectly concluded having read those articles.

#3 
Written By Damien Shannon on January 21st, 2013 @ 12:35 am
Damien Shannon

As to the caveat emptor point – how is it that virtually every other University in the UK manages to admit postgraduates perfectly well, without requiring advanced proof of an arbitrary level of living costs? I have not heard any reports of mis-selling of education, or of Universities taking advantage of students in order to ‘grab the fees and run’. You are overstating the risks and understanding the inequity in Oxford’s rather ridiculous system, which states that those who cannot afford to dine in College and socialise, are not suitable for admission.

#4 
Written By Damien Shannon on January 21st, 2013 @ 12:38 am

The claim that you only had access to the career development loan is in fact made in the Huffington Post – http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/01/20/oxford-college-st-hughs-discrmination_n_2515647.html?utm_hp_ref=uk which is where I got it from.

The Telegraph article mentions that “other universities” have similar policies to the one cited by St Hugh’s, which suggests Oxford isn’t the only one. I have heard anecdotal evidence (though admittedly no hard data) of universities being happy to admit Masters’ students with no regard for whether or not said students end up dropping out for lack of money. As I said in the article, I think the bar for funds is set too high (and in your case if you had £9,000 for living costs that should have been enough) but in the absence of better funding being available for postgrads – which I support – I’m not opposed to the principle which St Hugh’s cites. I’d not heard that Oxford assume you have to be able to afford to dine in College though – do you have a source you could link to for that?

#5 
Written By Owen on January 21st, 2013 @ 7:16 am
Damien Shannon

I had only seen one article on the Huff Post, not that one (there are two). However always best to check the facts rather than rely on the work of others.

The College have not presented any evidence before the Courts that a single other University in the UK operates the same policy that Oxford do. Even Cambridge do not. I have not been able to find any examples. If you find one I would be very interested to see it.

The basis of the £12,900 figure is set out on the Oxford University website here: http://www.ox.ac.uk/feesandfunding/fees/livingcosts/graduates/ – it includes such funds as are necessary to dine in College, socialise, buy clothes, and rent a room of a particular size and cost.

You will I am sure be very pleased to hear that your blog post has won the approval of the St Hugh’s College Bursar! I think other than that the response hasn’t been entirely positive as you appear to have missed the point. The sole purpose of the policy is to select by wealth. For those who wish to undertake a PhD, they must show they have all funds for the full duration of the course in advance – usually in the region of £70,000 – as a condition of entry.

#6 
Written By Damien Shannon on January 21st, 2013 @ 9:53 am

“The basis of the £12,900 figure is set out on the Oxford University website here: http://www.ox.ac.uk/feesandfunding/fees/livingcosts/graduates/ – it includes such funds as are necessary to dine in College, socialise, buy clothes, and rent a room of a particular size and cost.”

In other words, sufficient funds to maintain a lifestyle in keeping with the college’s haute-bourgeois ethos, not subsist according to the student’s measured needs.

I think Damien has a reasonable case.

#7 
Written By Francis Sedgemore on January 21st, 2013 @ 12:02 pm

Nowhere on that page does it say anything about expecting graduate students to dine in college that I could see – have I missed something? It does, however, estimate housing costs of £6,200 for 12 months, which I’m happy to agree is definitely far higher than it needs to be – you could probably rent an OK room in London for less than that, and housing costs in Oxford are significantly lower. Which supports the point I’ve already made repeatedly but am happy to reiterate for a third time, namely that I agree that St Hugh’s has set the bar too high, but I don’t agree that financial guarantees are wrong per se. I would also dispute the assertion that I’ve “missed the point”. The point is not that the purpose of the policy is to select by wealth. The point is that you (that is, Damien) *claim* that this is the case, and I’m disputing that claim.
*
You also say that you’ve not been able to find examples of any other university in the UK having similar conditions. A small amount of googling suggests that while it’s not common, Heriot-Watt does have one for at least one course: http://www.hw.ac.uk/student-life/how-to-apply/postgraduate.htm. And it sounds like Sheffield does (presumably for all courses) as well (see section 7.2 of the document): http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/polopoly_fs/1.142656!/file/Terms-and-Conditions-upon-acceptance-of-an-Offer.pdf

#8 
Written By Owen on January 21st, 2013 @ 7:10 pm

St Hughes’ breakdown of costs includes a reference to “…a mixture of eating meals in college and self-catering”, and in several other places there is reference to in-college versus self-catering arrangements. Oxford Colleges put considerable pressure on students to take part in college social activities, and these can be very costly.

My mother was a student at St Hughes back in the late 1950s, and to this day keeps in contact with the college through the alumni organisation. She was a grammar school pupil of working class background who went on to get an Oxford scholarship, with all fees and living costs paid by the state.

That was a very different age. In 2013 St Hughes has set the bar far too high. With students now having to fund themselves with loans and casual work, universities cannot reasonably demand financial guarantees beyond the payment of their fees.

#9 
Written By Francis Sedgemore on January 21st, 2013 @ 7:33 pm
Adrian

Regarding Damien’s point about Cambridge not having the same policy as Oxford, they do require new graduate students to sign a ‘financial undertaking form’ explicitly showing a ‘financial liability’ figure, which each student must calculate – using a formula Cambridge provides – and then write on the form.
See: http://www.admin.cam.ac.uk/students/gradadmissions/prospec/pdf/undertaking.pdf
More detail on p. 14 here: https://www.admin.cam.ac.uk/students/gradadmissions/prospec/pdf/offer.pdf
The amount Cambridge requires as ‘minimum maintenance’ for 2013/14 is slightly lower than Oxford’s: £11750, see:
http://www.admin.cam.ac.uk/students/studentregistry/fees/costs/coursecost/costs2013v6.pdf

The point here is that whilst Cambridge doesn’t appear to be asking students to provide bank statements, they are asking for a signed declaration that each student has access to a specific large sum very similar to the amount required by Oxford. A cursory look at a few more graduate admissions websites suggests that signing at least some kind of financial undertaking is fairly standard for UK universities.

In the absence of any specific legal knowledge, I can’t help wondering whether requiring someone to sign an undertaking that they have £12000, and asking them to prove that they have that amount, are equivalent in law. Yes, you can sign the Cambridge form without actually having the money, but then you’ve signed it in bad faith.

When I first read about this, I assumed that the figure Oxford required was pegged to the amount a research-council funded student on a full-time course would receive as maintenance, but actually it’s slightly less. The standard grant outside London for 2013/14 seems to be £13590, and given the UK research councils agree that this is what the average graduate student needs to live on, I’m surprised more universities aren’t explicitly asking prospective students to demonstrate that they have this amount.

Whilst I sympathise with Damien’s position, I think in the above context he will have a hard time making his allegations about selection by wealth stick. Oxford will claim they are both being responsible and protecting their own interests by ensuring that all admitted students can afford to complete their courses. They will wheel out the research council studentship figure and a few other universities’ estimated cost-of-living figures, and suggest that alongside these their own requirement does not look outlandish.

This issue does highlight some of the major systemic problems with postgraduate education in the UK, but I’m not sure suing Oxford is going to help Damien or anyone else.

#10 
Written By Adrian on January 22nd, 2013 @ 1:16 am
Sam

The sole purpose of the policy is to select by wealth. For those who wish to undertake a PhD, they must show they have all funds for the full duration of the course in advance – usually in the region of £70,000 – as a condition of entry.

This is not a wealth test at all. This is explicitly and entirely a test that you can actually afford to complete the PhD. (And you don’t have to show funds – just that you have a source of funding. “I have this grant” counts, as does “The Department of X will employ me as a research assistant”.)

A PhD is a full-time job (or possibly two simultaneous full-time jobs). Whilst many students can earn a little money tutoring undergraduates, you don’t have time to hold down a job outside your research and complete a PhD in 3-4 years. So the college is saying “we know you can’t earn much money in the next 3 years – how are you going to keep yourself alive and pay your fees”? Nobody wants to waste their time on you if you’re going to drop out after a year or so.

In my time at Oxford, I was acquainted with one man whose family lived in North Oxford. He lived at home during his PhD (which was, naturally, within the statutory 6 miles of Carfax), and as I understand it, his college accepted a letter from his parents guaranteeing his accommodation as part of his financial guarantee, valued at whatever the college thought accommodation should cost. So I’m a little surprised that a bit of creative phrasing on Mr. Shannon’s part wouldn’t pass muster (don’t say “housing won’t cost me £6,200 – it will only cost £3,500″. Do say “Negotiated housing discount, value £2,700. Cash in hand £3,500. Total £6,200″).

#11 
Written By Sam on January 22nd, 2013 @ 5:21 am

“…and given the UK research councils agree that this is what the average graduate student needs to live on,…”

Research council grants are stipends, not subsistence allowances, and are primarily for PhD students on 3+ year programmes. The level of these stipends is the result of a considerable amount of trade union lobbying and negotiation.

In the case of doctoral candidates in science and engineering, research council stipends are often supplemented with taxable earnings, and occasionally industrial sponsorship, with the aim being to provide people who are doing what is basically a full-time job, and who may have family commitments, with a living wage.

One-year Masters students are in a different position, and many have to struggle through for this relatively short period with the aid of career development loans and the like.

#12 
Written By Francis Sedgemore on January 22nd, 2013 @ 11:58 am
Damien Shannon

Hi Owen. Thanks for those links (I had not found them before – Oxford have not brought them to my attention in their defence). They are quite useful to my case. The Hariot Watt example is interesting. They do not specify an exact living costs figure, only “approximate” figures, the upper limit of which is £9,000, which seems reasonable to me. However, there will still be potential legal implications for this policy, as applied to British students, in that it seems to meet the Oxford characteristic of liquid capital up front. I anticipate, given the living costs figure is approximate, it is open to negotiation, and that flexibility is a big distinguishing feature. The Sheffield example is very different. First, it takes account of the circumstances of the individual (the figure is reduced if you are not present in the city for the full 52 weeks). Second, it is similar to the Cambridge policy, in that it does not require evidence, only a declaration. Third, if the University is of the opinion that you may not be in a financially secure position to undertake study, they allow you to defer for a year, whilst the financial situation is resolved. Oxford explicitly forbid this. Fourth, Sheffield allow (reasonable) prospective earnings from part-time employment to count toward the figures, again forbidden by Oxford. So those are useful examples, but they are different both in form and effect, and if anything only help reinforce the unreasonableness of Oxford’s policy.

Adrian – your research council stipend example has been raised by the College, although they have made an almighty error in their claims, which I sadly cannot divulge (their lawyer gave me a slap on the wrist for this), but it will be very amusing when raised in court, as it totally undermines their position. Sadly, I just have to say wait and see.

#13 
Written By Damien Shannon on January 22nd, 2013 @ 8:50 pm
Ian

Is there not a simple point, here, in that, whilst it would be wrong for a university to instrumentally take money (i.e. fees) from a student who is likely to drop out (for whatever reasons), once a university can determine what is entailed by ‘living costs’, selective education is reintroduced? There is also an alarming congruence with this and, for example, policies of the ConDem junta, insofar as what is enacted is a way of making it difficult to live for those who do no defecate money.

#14 
Written By Ian on January 25th, 2013 @ 8:44 am

I refuse to use the term “ConDem junta” – it is a democratically elected government, and we get what we deserve – but Ian is right to address this as a class issue. I see it also in my own trade, journalism, where training in the form of often unpaid internships is increasingly reserved for those with familial means to help carry them through.

When it comes to higher education, under the old regime the state kept in check the patrician liberalism of the university ruling elite with financial aid for students of modest means. All that has now gone, leaving a pseudo-free market. Only it isn’t free in any way if the universities can impose conditions on students such as we see here.

It is for the universities to secure their fees income, and for students to look after their own interests. The latter must be left to get on with it and make their own life choices.

#15 
Written By Francis Sedgemore on January 25th, 2013 @ 11:10 am

I’m currently a student at Oxford University; this has been a most interesting debate. Having been on the inside, there are perhaps a couple of things that should be made clear from a purely financial viewpoint.

Firstly, my rent in a college owned property over a 9 month period was almost 5000 GBP,and so the figures presented are not unreasonable. Housing in Oxford IS expensive; whilst it may not necessarily be as high as they are in London, cheap outside accommodation run out very quickly at the start of each academic year for the following academic year; there is no way as a Master student that you will be able to find accommodation significantly lower than the quoted prices.

Along those lines, I can also confirm that the Utilities and food costs are accurate, based on a mixture of self catering and dining in college. The food situation is this – if you do not have access to kitchen facilities, which is a significant portion of students, then dining 3 meals in college will cost approx 10 pounds per head per day; this varies from college to college of course.

You can significantly reduce this figure if you cater for oneself entirely, but the assumption I feel is that as busy students this will not be possible for many. Either way, having to worry about going hungry is not what students should be distracted with.

The general living costs will seem to be significant for some. What the quoted cost does, however, is minimise the chance that students will develop welfare related issues due to financial problems. What I would say though, is that the University has had a huge amount of experience of dealing with students and anticipating how much each is likely to spend. Whilst this will vary student to student, you have to trust one of the leading institutions in the world that they have calculated a good general living cost to limit the compromise to student welfare otherwise.

Having seen students suffering and even dropping out from the stress of the courses themselves, I would say that financial stress is something all students should do without. Once the University has taken you on as a student, they have a duty to take care of your welfare, and having seen a friend of mine having to balance financial troubles with a degree, given the amount of resources the college has to put in to rescue the situation and what my friend had to go through, nobody wins really.

What it all boils down to is this. Most, if not all Oxford courses are hugely oversubscribed; it is common sense to only offer places to those who will be able to afford it. If the student is otherwise unable to complete the course due to financial reasons, you have just wasted a place for another equally bright applicant who could afford it.

#16 
Written By Solomon Lau on February 15th, 2013 @ 9:46 am
Paul

Well done Damien! I am in exactly your position having got a place on an msc, and your success will make a real change to my application; I.e. I can now actually go! (Now I’m not being discriminated against that is) . It really is sad that it took High Court action to stop Oxford being prejudicial and discriminatory. They must have settled because they knew they would loose and that this was an elitist step too far, as begrudgingly as I’m sure they were in reinstating your offer.

#17 
Written By Paul on March 26th, 2013 @ 3:37 am

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