Why I Am Suing Oxford for 'Selecting Students by Wealth'
Damien Shannon, Guardian UK
Access can't be limited to those who can afford to socialise and dine in college, or live in a room of a particular size and cost.
The University of Oxford in Oxford, England. (photo: unknown)
n 19 January 2012, after many months of research, I applied to the University of Oxford to read for an MSc in economic and social history. I was extremely wary of applying, and convinced I was not academically suitable. I am sure many from modest backgrounds who apply to Oxford experience the same anxieties. I reluctantly applied after being encouraged to do so by Prof Avner Offer, one of Oxford's many renowned economic historians and one of the kindest and most generous people I have had the pleasure of meeting. To my great surprise, after several nervous phone calls to the graduate admissions staff at the faculty of history, I received an offer of study.
Fast forward to about seven months, and that initial achievement - which held so much promise to transform my life - was undone. St Hugh's College, to which I had been allocated, would not allow me to take up my place. Not because I could not pay my fees or could not fund my living costs. The reason given was that I did not have what the university deemed to be sufficient funds to meet the costs of living in Oxford for the duration of my course.
The policy of the college and university is that those who do not have £12,900 per annum for living costs are not suitable for admission. This figure is composed of several costs that are set out on the university's website. It requires a prospective student to have £7,250 for rent and utilities, regardless of whether their actual tenancy agreement is for less (I had negotiated rent that was several thousand pounds cheaper than Oxford's projected costs, but this was deemed irrelevant). It requires £56 per week for food, including sufficient funds to dine within the college's own restaurant. It requires a substantial sum of money with which to socialise and buy clothes. Oxford appears to be saying that those who cannot afford to dine within their colleges and socialise are not suitable for admission.
I have now brought a claim against the college in the courts, as reported by Daniel Boffey in the Observer. Having noted the reaction to this article, it is probably worth busting a few myths. First, I am not suing for money. Second, I am representing myself in court - I have refused offers of legal aid and "no win no fee" agreements because I want to minimise costs for the college. Finally, I had about £9,000 available to meet my anticipated costs of living, which is a perfectly reasonable figure for those who manage to negotiate lower rent and choose not to dine within their college.
I realise the headline that Oxford is "selecting by wealth" will horrify many who read it. It is crucial to point out that it is not necessarily unlawful to select on the basis of financial criteria, providing there is an objective and reasonable justification for doing so and that the means employed are proportionate. My primary argument before the courts is that it cannot be considered proportionate to refuse access to those who cannot afford to socialise or dine in college, or live in a room of a particular size and cost.
There are some ancillary arguments to be had. For instance, the colleges refuse to allow anticipated earnings to form part of the financial guarantee. According to their submissions to the court, this is "not appropriate due to the rigours of graduate study, and so projected earnings during a student's course are not relevant". Yet the colleges and university employ their own graduate students to perform all manner of functions - as junior deans, welfare officers and even assisting with tuition and research. There is also not a word about the enormous time commitments students are perfectly free to engage in should they wish to partake in their college's rowing club.
Seemingly, graduate study is too rigorous to allow students to be employed outside the university, but just rigorous enough to allow them to work for the university itself or spend hours training for competitive sporting events that enhance its reputation.
Oxford, for me, has been an almost total contradiction of people and policies. I was and remain touched by the kindness and generosity of the staff and academics of the faculty of history, who went to great lengths to answer my questions and secure a place for me. Yet within the colleges and among the university's managerial hierarchy there remains an undertone of elitism, privilege and exclusivity. The policy I am challenging strikes at the very essence of this: "Unless you can afford to partake in our customs and conventions, you are not welcome here." By any reading, that strikes me as unfair. We shall soon discover whether it is unlawful.