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

15 November 2012

New changes to the University’s graduate fee system could see colleges competing to milk the most cash out of incoming students, under a new ‘market-driven’ fee structure. A recent report – endorsed by the University’s Bursar’s Committee – proposes a new “structure” under which the College graduate fee will be “led by policy and market considerations.” The new “structure” would involve a dramatic increase in the cost of graduate courses for overseas students. Although there is a University-set percentage cap on overseas undergraduate students, no such cap exists for graduates. It is entirely up to the colleges to choose how many new overseas graduate students to take on each year.

Under this new system, it would make financial sense for colleges to take on mostly overseas graduate students, and very few home students. The new system does have some benefits for home students; their graduate college fee would be cut by almost half, reduced from £2,349 to £1,276. However, it could also become far more difficult for them to gain a place if almost all of the places are taken by overseas students.

Arsalan Ghani, President of the University’s Graduate Union, has expressed concern about this. In a recent email addressed to all members of the Graduate Union, he explained that he has “mixed feeling on the plan,” and appealed to Graduate Union members (“Please, I need your advice…”) for their views and feedback.

The new scheme is not intended as a profit-making exercise. Though it will provide the University with an estimated £4.233m per year, but £3.701m of this will be spent on “institut a system of Overseas studentships for PhD students equal to one half of the College fee.” Overseas grad students studying for non-PhD degrees (such as Diplomas and MPhils) will still have to pay much higher annual college fees (up to £5,676 for Science students), but PhD students will only need to pay a fraction of the price (£2,169-£2,838 per year, depending on their course).

These variable costs are also a potential cause for concern. Under the new system, graduate students studying at the same college would be charged different amounts for their degrees, depending on whether they study arts or sciences.

Regardless of the pros and cons of the new plan, an immediate overhaul of the college fee system is desperately needed. As pointed out in the report, submitted by the Fees Sub-Committee of the Bursars’ Committee, “The proposal… will create winners and losers. There is no escaping that, unless of course some new and substantial funding stream can be found… the future of the Collegiate University depends critically on fundraising.”

This need for additional funding is the result of recent changes made by the various government-funded Research Councils which finance many graduate degrees. These Research Councils provide government funding for the best and brightest graduates to continue their studies. Until 2001, the Research Councils paid both the University Fee and the College Fee for the students they subsidise.

But over the last few years, three of the major Research Councils (the EPSRC, the AHRC and the ESRC) have refused to continue paying their students’ college fees. Many grads from poorer backgrounds may be unable to pay these fees on their own. Without a radical solution to the situation, these students may be unable to study at Cambridge.

The University may have found a solution in refiguring the college fee as part of the overall university fee, set at a fixed rate. Amidst accusations of ‘elitism’ from the national press, the government is naturally unwilling to fund a special separate college fee just for Oxbridge. But by rebranding the college fee as part of the general university fee – hiding one fee inside the other – the University would be able to convey the idea that funding for the full amount is necessary. The college fee would represent 25% of the new composite university fee.

According to the Fees Subcommittee of the Bursars’ Committee, The University and college fees “can be presented as a single combined figure for prospective applicants”. In real terms, this means that the university fee will appear to rise by one third, but the overall charge for home students will go down.

Tristram Saunders & Jenny Buckley – Deputy News Editor & News Reporter