The Oxford debate on higher education IV: we should be a community of intellectuals

The head of Oxford's student union addresses the faculty
David Barclay
13 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 third in the  daily series of contributions OurKingdom is running see Stuart White,  Kate Tunstall, and John Parrington, tomorrow Bernard Sufrin

 It is an honour to be able to address you as the representative of Oxford students. My intention today is nothing less than the total recasting of the debate around undergraduate funding and support through a new understanding of the crisis which we confront together today.

 The tone I’ve heard in committees so far has cast the crisis as one of regulation and finances. Just think of the numbers and acronyms we’ve heard today - £16,000, 70%, OFFA, BIS and TRAC. It is true as we all know that this University is not rolling in cash, but the bottom line is this - the idea that by playing the new system right and gathering all the available resources we can bring back the economic good times is a total chimera. Our margin for new action may not be huge, but it is real, and to restrict ourselves to just jumping through the HEFCE hoops is to give in to the comforting myth that the only crisis we face is of securing ourselves against tighter budgets and stricter rules. 

 The real crisis which Oxford faces is one of community, and by that I mean two things; firstly how our community is perceived and accessed by those outside it, and secondly how the key relationship within it - that between students and tutors - is being undermined. Let there be no mistake about the first issue of how young adults in this country see us - the status quo was nowhere near good enough and the status quo has gone forever. We all know that the new system, through poor design and shocking PR, will put those from the poorest backgrounds off applying to University. The argument I keep hearing is that those students who would no longer come to University are never going to be Oxford’s problem because they’re never going to have the brains to get here anyway. That argument sickens me to the core. The day we give up on students who had never before thought about University coming to Oxford is the day we give up any pretence of seeking the best talent wherever it may be found. Can’t every single person in this room think of someone who has studied here as the first member of their family to enter higher education?

This is a time in which image really matters. Oxford needs to honour its promise to phase-in fee changes to show the world that we’re serious about shielding students from the full force of this unprecedented rise. We need to put in place an extraordinary fee waiver scheme that allows us to say to the poorest students that we value their academic talent so much we’ll make it free for them to study here. And we need to increase spending on bursaries and peg it to the most expensive College in order to be able to assure every student in the Collegiate University that they will be able to live comfortably in Oxford without having to work during term-time. This is the bare minimum that the University needs to do to ensure the continuation of our ideal of attracting talent from every background in Britain. But it is not the only story.

I’m sure many of you will have seen the news recently of a student suing Oxford over its teaching. This a clear sign of the threat the new funding system poses in turning this University into a place of producers and consumers of knowledge. I believe that we are not consumers and producers but a community of intellectuals engaged in the common task of investigating the world around us and understanding the human condition. That is the very heart of what Oxford is about, what makes us and our University special, and it is under the most terrifying threat. The only answer in avoiding a transactional and confrontational approach between students and tutors is to commit wholeheartedly to a co-operative and co-equal one. Once again we have to avoid the complacent idea that status quo is good enough. Not when Colleges try to sneak student charges in the back door to balance the books, not when senior University appointments exclude any student representation, and not when there is virtually no mechanism by which students can have a real say in how their increased tuition fees are going to be spent. OUSU and Common rooms across Oxford are ready to take our seat at the table and tackle the big issues which we all face, but unless Colleges and University are ready to listen to our voice and sacrifice to help turn it into action, the seats of the negotiating table will become the pews of the courts, to the detriment of us all. 

So Congregation, please don’t give in to the bureaucratic viewpoint which would have us charge what we can and spend only what we have to. The real crisis upon us now has got nothing to do with the University’s wallet and everything to do with how our community can draw students in from every background and give them real power over their experience here. The students of Oxford have sent me today to ask some of the greatest minds in the world to set themselves to the task of solving that challenge, ‘what will Oxford do now?’

David Barclay is President of the Oxford University Student Union


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