Cambridge University unanswerable to FOI requests – College bursars keep students in the dark on fee changes

7 March 2013

According to a report from Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the Bursars’ Committee is a public body and subject to Freedom of Information requests. However, The Cambridge Student is led to believe that the Committee is continuing with controversial plans to dramatically increase the amount paid by overseas students without holding a proper consultation.

Despite arguments from the Committee that all their proposals are confidential, the Commissioner noted in 2009 that ‘confidential’ does not carry “an obligation of confidence” and, as the matters discussed by the Committee tend to relate “purely to business matters”, there is no reason why they should be withheld from the public.

The new fee changes have been causing controversy within the Committee, culminating in the Bursar at Selwyn, Nick Downer, resigning his position on the Committee earlier this week. When contacted by TCS, Downer was unavailable for comment.

The Committee’s proposed overhaul of College fees is set to be introduced in some form, despite many colleges objecting to the proposals and without any students being consulted. The changes outlined by the Committee would see the College fees paid by graduate students rising to one third of their University fees (See TCS, ‘Stand and deliver: your money not your mind’, 15/11/12). The increased fee is to be absorbed into the University fee so that students only have to pay one fee, instead of the two they do currently. Whilst the proposed changes are designed to benefit Home/EU graduates, the scheme would dramatically increase the financial pressure placed on Overseas students.

For Home/EU students, the total amount paid is set to decrease, with fees for science students falling by around £1,000, while those enrolling in arts courses would see fees decrease by approximately £700.

However, in order to lower fees for Home/EU students TCS understands that those who live overseas would be subject to a dramatic fee increase. Overseas science students will see the amount they pay increase by almost £3,500, while arts students will be asked to pay an additional £2,500. The most significant increases will be felt by those students studying for masters degrees who enrol upon so-called ‘high premium fee courses’.

According to the University’s graduate admissions College Guide, the college fee is primarily charged for facilities offered by that college, such as accommodation, catering and sports facilities.

TCS understands that colleges have responded to the fee-hike by suggesting that charging two students living in identical rooms in the same College radically different amounts for the same facilities is “immoral”. Although these concerns have been noted by the Bursars’ Sub-Committee, they have been mainly ignored.

By introducing a system whereby colleges can earn significantly more by admitting Overseas students, in particular those who are applying to study high premium fee courses, competition for a select group of students could develop. This would potentially cause colleges to ‘poach’ more financially valuable students from one another. For similar reasons, this could result in fewer arts graduates being admitted, as the financial incentive to admit science students will become far greater.

To counter the financial pressures that would be placed on Overseas students by the fee-hike, the Bursars’ Committee is proposing to introduce new studentships which would cover half of the College fee. However, this will have a particularly negative effect on graduate-only colleges, as any income resulting from the fee increase will still fall short of the financial outlay involved in providing sufficient studentships to fill course places.

Although colleges have expressed concern about the studentship scheme and the proposed changes to College fees in general, TCS believes that no students have been involved in the consultation as the Committee feels that it is not required to consult people who are not named ‘members’.

The ICO has previously ruled against the Bursars’ Committee for their decision to only disclose information to ‘members’ after they desired exemption from the FOI act, as they consider themselves to be an “unincorporated association or members’ club”. The Commissioner felt that the responsibility allocated to the Committee would not “be afforded to a ‘members club'” and, as the Committee is listed as a “University Body in the official University Reporter” with members attending in their paid capacity, the policies discussed in their meetings should be subject to wider consultation.

However, the Committee feels that given its “intercollegiate” status, it cannot be defined as a ‘public body’ and as such is not answerable to any body affiliated with the University.

However, Rosalyn Old, CUSU President, has confirmed to TCS that the Committee makes “fundamental” decisions concerning the way that University money is spent, which students are asked to pay College fees and how much they charged.

She said “It is absolutely outrageous that the University continues to allow the Bursars to claim they are a private ‘club’ when they so plainly make decisions for the University and Colleges”.

In an unprecedented joint statement, the entire CUSU and GU sabbatical teams claimed that “it is a disgrace that the University has allowed such important decisions about students’ lives to be made behind closed doors for so long”.

Jenny Buckley & Hazel Shearing – News Editor & Deputy News Editor

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Stand and deliver: your money, not your mind – Concern grows over new fees & admissions scheme