My letter to Oxford: full-time courses price out the poor

Those of you who follow my writing (eagle-eyed, I imagine, with robust gag reflexes) may have already seen a blog I wrote about postgraduate funding for the Intergenerational Foundation. Long story short: I got in to Oxford for a master’s but I can’t go thanks to a combination of tiny savings, broke Mum, no loans, bonkers-competitive scholarships and Oxford requesting all £17,000 to be accounted for up front. Ho hum.

Today, I was sent an e-mail informing me of the inevitable: my offer to Oxford (Oriel College) will expire in 3 days, short of a sudden, enormous Monopoly-style bank error in my favour that means I can pay. The response I received from the College was this:

Dear Josh,

Thanks for your quick response.

I am sorry to hear that you have not managed to find any suitable support for your MSt and would like to take this opportunity to wish you all the best with your future studies.

Yours sincerely,

Admissions Officer

Evidently, it is not the fault of the admissions officer (whose name I have not published, just in case it’s all illegal or data protectiony or a bit that’s-how-they-got-Murdoch). But I was angry at the casual tone of the response. Sorry. Good luck for the future. All the best, old bean. It’s a tone which connotes normality, acknowledging without complaint that it’s an everyday truism that poorer applicants simply cannot get in to study at Oxford. Sorry, pal. Cuh. Whatcha gonna do, eh?

So I wrote a letter of complaint to the History Faculty, homing my ire in on the rigidity of the full-time degree structure which means students must find the full fees and living costs before they enrol – a structure which clearly benefits the rich (or rich-parented) at the expense of the poor.

Dear [Faculty Graduate Admissions],

I’m writing to express my disappointment that history courses at Oxford are not offered in a part-time format. I have been made an offer to start in September, but unless I find the required £17,000 for full-time study before Friday, my offer from Oriel will be withdrawn. I am an applicant from a low-income, single parent, working class family with no savings even close to the required costs for fees and maintenance. There are no student loans for postgraduates and with scholarships being so competitive (as well as not being means tested) poorer graduates are being shut out of postgraduate study at Oxford.

It is deeply exclusionary to expect all applicants to have that amount of money up front. Moreover, with respect, it is misguided and out of date. More and more graduates are turning to postgraduate study (a five-fold increase in the UK since 1990) as a means of furthering their education and of distinguishing themselves from the thousands of other graduates competing for the same jobs. Part-time courses would allow flexibility. Students would need only to find part of the fees before their course and could earn money alongside their studies. History courses at Oxford could be opened up to thousands more applicants from a variety of backgrounds, injecting new, exciting and dynamic experiences into the study and practice of history. Until that flexibility is possible, it can only mean a continuation of the hegemony in academia, and history, of white males from the middle and upper classes.

I hope that steps may be taken to this end so that future applicants are able to accept their places and enjoy the opportunity to study at Oxford.

Yours sincerely,
Josh White

I await a response.


Response from Oxford today (04/07) at 11:30am.

Dear Josh,

Thank you very much for this. I will pass it on and hope that your comments will be put to good use.

Please let us know if you need to withdraw from your place.

Best wishes,

[Faculty Graduate Admissions]


12 thoughts on “My letter to Oxford: full-time courses price out the poor

  1. Why should a bank or Oxford subsidize a £17,000 degree that will not pay off in increased wages after? There’s no free lunch–life is unfair. There are many postgraduate degree programs in the states that offer full funding in exchange for teaching responsibilities. Look into those

      1. Josh,
        You’re right, on average postgraduate degree holders earn more than graduates. However, the documents you link to do not break down future earnings by subject area. Notice table 4 in the pg-education document you link to – a massive 20% of postgrads are doing “business/management”, and a significant proportion are doing sciences. Although I agree with you in that there should be more funding for education and research in subject areas such as history, I think that it should be for its own merits (ie. that it is an extremely worthwhile and important non-monetary contribution to a good society), and not for the reason that a postgrad degree holder in history will earn more money. Because the world is shit these days and I don’t think they will.

      2. Yep, completely agree. Society greatly benefits from Humanities graduates and postgraduates – not just through the tax system – and the govt ought to recognise it with funding support.

    1. People, by and large, don’t do Arts and Humanities postgrad degrees to earn lots of money. I take it Josh has a real interest in History, rather than in making money, so taking a loan of £17,000 to pursue an interest just doesn’t make financial sense. I’m not saying it should be free. But, like undergrad, there should not be a charge at point of access. Also – I think the point Josh is trying to make (beside’s that ‘life is shit’), is that these fees are making academia exclusive, and therefore being a lecturer as a proffession is only for those who can afford it. I believe this is contrary to most Universities which “are committed to promoting social inclusion”. Not only do they say that, they are also required to have strong access programmes to undergrad degrees (which are supposed to be expanded in the context of raising fees to £9k which OFFA is supposed to be enforcing), but they have no access arrangements for postgrad – this to me shows a complete lack of commitment to really opening up Higher Education to everyone.

  2. Hi Josh – I am a (very) mature student and single mother of a daughter who has been fortunate enough to get my backing through her MA and find funding for a PhD. I am also a just-about-to-graduate part-time student myself – a second late-life degree that has taken five years to complete and yielded a fine result. I am considering a part-time MA.
    I am totally sympathetic to your plight. The letters back from Oxford are trite and frankly upsetting, but they also beautifully convey the rarified and frankly unattractive place that Oxbridge occupies, and it does so because it can. You are being knocked over in the rush by the chequebook-wavers, who doubtlessly also merit the places but thereby bring wealth into an equation where it should count for nothing. Of course it’s not bloody fair, but you can see how it happens.
    It is patently not right and I applaud your campaign, but I would urge you to wage that in the background while you move on. I did my part-time study at Kent and they do offer part-time postgrad study, see I’m sure there are plenty of others. Those places may not have the cache you fancied, but they might just welcome you as the person you are with the ambition that you have, rather than your wallet. You may end up liking that more, and in that case it will almost certainly foster a better outcome. Good luck!

  3. I completely agree about the undesirable fees system, and that ideally part time study would be offered. It’s the reason I’ll be pursuing my own Masters study abroad, taking advantage of much lower fees in the Netherlands (My MSc costs €1,700).

    I’m not sure I agree about the tone of the email though. What would you like them to say? “I’m so sorry, distraught even, I wish it were different but what can one Admissions staff member do!?”
    Fees are the reality of especially postgrad HE, and that person will have to send hundreds of those emails. Express sadness you are unable to take up the offer, wish you the best. Short and sweet, seems an appropriate response really.

    Also, it’s not quite right there is no student loan for postgrad study – You can get a £10,000 professional development loan from the SLC, with basically commercial terms.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Oliver. I think it’s reasonable to say that the tone of the e-mail I received was appropriate – after all, it’s not the fault of the Admission Officer – but what I thought was inappropriate, and a little callous, was that the financial situation was even not worth commenting on. I freely admit that the casual tone of the e-mail allowed me to make a point about the coolness and normality of such situations, but I still think it is one worth making.

      As for the Career Development Loan you mention, it’s not applicable for me for a number of reasons: (a) I want to do a Ph.D (i.e., my ‘career’ is academia) and would have to start paying back directly after my master’s while I was studying a doctorate, a financial constraint which could prevent me being able to afford a Ph.D in the first place; (b) banks won’t lend to people who will start another course immediately after, because they can’t guarantee a return; (c) arts and humanities ‘careers’ aren’t like social work, or engineering, where certain postgraduate degrees directly qualify you for a particular career path – it’s too much of a gamble for a bank to back a history master’s knowing that it might not lead to a job; (d) it’s based on credit rating, so if you have very little money, have never owned a credit card, or have a poor credit history, you can’t get one. For more on that, I blogged here [plug]:

  4. Hi Josh,

    I’m sorry you had a bad experience with your application to the MSt in History. I remember my own applications for postgraduate courses and funding – it was a stressful and often demoralizing time. I fully agree that the current system for funding Master’s degrees in the humanities has its problems, and that the future for those of us who don’t have vast stacks of cash lying in our bank accounts may well be with part-time degrees.

    As you may know, Oxford University offers a range of part-time Master’s and DPhil programmes through its Department for Continuing Education. These are designed for those students who wish to continue working through their studies, but who want to enjoy both the academic rigour of an Oxford postgraduate degree, and the collegiate atmosphere of the University. Teaching is arranged so that it can fit around the work schedules of most people in full-time employment, and the courses are run by established Fellows and University Lecturers.

    You can find more information here:

    Oxford’s Department for Continuing Education is the arm of the University specializing in adult, continuing and part-time education, as well as career and professional development and distance learning. It has been historically at the forefront of the university’s efforts to widen access to its research and teaching, taking a progressive approach to learning and to meeting the needs of the adult and local community.

    Inbox me if you want more information – I’d love to hear from you!


    1. Hi Jon, Thanks for the info. The Continuing Education courses do look great, though not quite in my area of interest, and I’m also enrolled on a part-time Master’s course from September at a different university, but I will definitely have a look at these for the future!

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