The Oxford Debate I: Cuts, Fees and equality of opportunity in Higher Education

The Oxford University 'Congregation' which governs the University met and debated whether it should raise fees in the context of a fierce wider debate. This is the first of a series of contributions OurKingdom will be publishing.

Stuart White
10 February 2011

The Oxford University 'Congregation', the University's sovereign body which includes all permanent academic faculty, met in the Sheldonian theatre on 8 February to debate whether it should raise student fees in the context of a fierce wider debates. Some students were allowed to take part while others demonstrated outside. This is the first of a series of contributions OurKingdom will be publishing. Tomorrow: Kate Tunstall

I want to start by addressing those who say that we should consider the issue of cuts and fees in higher education as settled. These colleagues are, to coin a phrase, confusing the end with what is only the end of the beginning.

In a democracy, no policy is ever set in stone. Change is always possible and, if we think change is right, we should say this and campaign for it.

Let’s recall that the government has no electoral mandate for its hiking of tuition fees. (Indeed, one of the two Coalition parties won seats on the basis of a pledge to do the very opposite.) The government won a uniquely anguished vote in the House of Commons, but was genuinely worried that it would lose the vote in the Lords.

And look at what is happening in other areas. Look at the protests over the privatisation of forests. Look at the wonderful read-ins across the country this past weekend to protest closures of public libraries. Look at the opposition gathering to the government’s proposed NHS reforms or at the revolt brewing in the charitable sector over local government spending cuts. Look at the government’s falling approval ratings.

What we are seeing in this country is the emergence of a broad, popular movement against cuts and the marketisation of our public realm; a movement that stands for values of humanity and decency against what Philip Pullman calls the "greedy ghost of market fundamentalism".

In this situation, where the public is increasingly sceptical of the free-market ideological thrust of government policy, it would be odd indeed for Oxford University to meekly acquiesce to this ideology in higher education.

Oxford University should have the courage of the forest protestors, the library protestors, and others protesting free-market extremism (such as those outside this building). Oxford University should say, clearly and loudly, that it does not accept the new fees regime as an acceptable settlement for higher education.

But if we really believe in equality of opportunity and equality of access to higher education, we must say more than this.

For equality of opportunity is threatened – perhaps more threatened - by a whole range of other government policies.

It is threatened by the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance, a policy with a proven track record of assisting children from poorer backgrounds to stay on in school after 16.

It is threatened by the closure of public libraries. As the first person in my family ever to enter higher education, I know how important ready access to a public library was to me as a child in raising my intellectual horizons and setting me on the path to university.

And how will equality of opportunity be affected by the abolition of the Independent Living Fund which currently assists young disabled people to put together care packages to support their life at university?

And what will be the effect of abolishing the Child Trust Fund, a policy which would have helped to ensure that all citizens reach adulthood with the financial liquidity that middle-class parents and their children take for granted?

And equality of opportunity is threatened by the cuts to Sure Start programs which provide essential help in early years development.

It all adds up.

In short, if we really believe in equality of opportunity, then as a University we must be clear and loud in saying that we oppose the new fees regime in higher education- and the wider cuts agenda of the Coalition government.

This – and this alone - is the starting-point for a meaningful discussion of equality of opportunity.
Stuart White, Department of Politics and International Relations,

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