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in September, but unless I find the required £17,000 for full-time study before Friday, my offer from Oriel will be withdrawn.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]


Future generations are being priced out of postgraduate study

(This is a blog for the think tank Intergenerational Foundation, also on their website.)

A few months ago, I was offered a place on a master’s degree in history at Oxford. It’s an achievement I’m pretty proud of. Not many people get an education like that so I felt privileged to get the chance. But I can’t go. Like thousands of young graduates, the option to go on to postgraduate study is either rapidly diminishing or completely out of reach. Owing to a massive increase in postgraduate fees, a lack of systemic (or, well, any) support from the government and rising youth unemployment, the academy door is being slammed shut in the faces of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Here is the problem. Since 1990, the number of postgraduate students in the UK has risen five-fold. And while that number is not wildly dramatic compared to the increase in undergraduate students (doubled across the OECD between 1995 and 2008), it is still a radical acceleration in the market of graduate programmes. On top of this, postgraduate tuition fees have increased by an average of 31.8% per cent between 2003 and 2009, even before the government’s recent cuts in higher education funding. And only an estimated 4% of students from lower socio-economic bands progressed onto master’s and Ph. D programmes in this same period.

Why? It’s obvious. Whatever you think about tuition fees, loans and funding for undergraduates – in fact, forget what you think you know – the postgraduate situation is wholly different. Apart from a few courses, and these are very few, there is no system of support for postgrads. None. Zilch. Unlike undergraduates, who are able to (at worst) claim a loan from the government to cover their fees, postgrads are not so lucky.

The vast majority are self-supported, often studying part-time (if the course allows it – lots at Oxford, including mine, don’t) so as to divide the massive tuition fees over two years and earn some additional income, but only if they can get a job. The job market for young people is not exactly easy – especially because a degree over-qualifies many for the kind of flexible part-time work they need to pay for their studies. Those who can study full-time are either (a) on a non-means tested scholarship or grant given by a relevant body or by the university, or (b) absolutely loaded and/or such good chums with the tooth fairy that they can afford upwards of £14,000 for fees and living costs. History at Oxford, a 9-month programme, costs £17,000.

Scholarships are very rarely awarded to students in need of financial assistance but usually on the basis of their specialisation and how well they fit within the research ethos of the department. That’s jolly reasonable, you could say. Well it is and it isn’t. Universities are perfectly entitled to choose whoever they feel is in the research interests of their faculty and to whom they wish to award the (limited) available funding. But because this is not based on financial need – i.e. not means tested – offering funding to a candidate who may (or may not) be able to afford it without the scholarship results in shutting the door to someone who otherwise cannot. I applied for a scholarship at Oxford (the Clarendon Fund) that awards assistance to 7 students from over 1000 applicants. And statistically, those with the best grades and the best education are ones who went to the best schools and, therefore, have the money already. Attendance at a private school more than doubles the likelihood of progressing from a bachelor’s degree to a postgraduate course – 0.9% to 2.4%.

Help is available to some students in the form of the government’s Professional and Career Development Loan (PCDL). Graduates can borrow up to £10,000 to cover fees and living costs and the loan is taken via Barclays or Co-operative. These are designed for students who wish to take vocational postgraduate programmes – like social work – that qualify them to enter their chosen professions. But there are major flaws. Borrowers have to start paying back one month from the start of their course, whether they get a job or not, and it’s useless if they want to continue on to a Ph. D. For humanities students who do not have a direct, tangible career path before them, they’ll find banks are unwilling to lend money without guarantee of a return. English Literature is not satisfactorily commercially quantifiable. Also, banks are not exactly keen to lend money at the moment, least of all to young people with no assets. Unless you have a blisteringly high credit rating, you are not going to be successful.

Boo hoo. A few graduates can’t go on to another year of tax-dodging and daytime TV? Except we should all be worried about the lack of social mobility this causes. Because of the numbers of graduates in the job market (and competing for places in the academy), the value of a bachelor’s degree is steadily deflating. A nice 2:1 from a nice university? So what? Here are 5,000 other graduates with the same record. As such, the master’s degree is increasingly the benchmark of the best applicants and, alarmingly, is the entry ticket for a rising number of vocations. Internships and jobs in the media (especially national newspapers) more often than not require a master’s course in journalism. These cost around £9,000. And that’s just the tuition fee.

New research is happening and the issue is, tentatively, being raised. CentreForum released a report in October 2011, ‘Mastering postgraduate funding’, which was praised by Nick Clegg (I know, I know, something of a duplicitous history on this sort of thing) as “important in promoting social mobility” and he welcomed the findings of the report. Philip Wales’s Ph. D research at LSE, ‘Access all Areas? The Impact of Fees and Background on Student Demand for Postgraduate Higher Education in the UK’, was released in March and formed the basis of the statistics above. I was interviewed in May as part of a study at the University of York on access to Ph. D study for aspiring academics.

We should care because universities, never really the bastion of social, economic and ethnic diversity, are slipping back, despite the improvements in recent years, towards the kind of exclusivity we associate with Oxbridge colleges. Postgraduate programmes in history, English, film, media, linguistics – unsupported by the PCDL – will soon be, as they will at undergraduate level, available only to the rich, the white, the privately-educated and the male. (Women are already 3% less likely to go on to postgraduate study.) A generation of young people are being priced out of continuing their education, priced out of jobs in academia (hardly the most diverse profession, anyway) and priced out by a generation of predominantly rich, white, privately-educated men, all of whom received free university educations, and who are failing to use their government’s opportunity to make access to education fair for everyone. Until they do, postgraduate study will continue to be the realm only of the rich. The future of academia is going backwards. The valuable research and benefits to society that could be offered by thousands of postgraduate students will be lost for generations.