University avoids Access increase as “perverse” VC challenged over bursary fudge

28 April 2011

Photo: Vice Chancellor Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz (Right) at yesterdays Royal visit to Cambridge

The University will not be spending enough money on Access to compensate for the £9,000 fee increase until 2016, a leaked document reveals.

The Cambridge’s Access Agreement commits to spending £1.5m per year on encouraging students from non-traditional backgrounds to apply, but gives administrators until 2016 to achieve this target – even though fee rises come into effect in 2012. This leaves the University four years’ breathing space before it has to channel money from increased fees into Access, and there are already fears that this will translate into a sharp drop in applications from the least advantaged students.

CUSU Student Support Officer Morgan Wild said: “£9,000 fees will massively affect Cambridge’s ability to attract students from the least advantaged backgrounds. This means that we need to commit to the most comprehensive widening participation package possible from the year that fees are raised, not just when it becomes convenient for Cambridge to spend the money. CUSU is campaigning for a much more attractive package for students, because this is what is necessary to afford the opportunity to all the students who will benefit from the Cambridge experience.”

The revelation comes days after Cambridge’s Vice Chancellor was formally accused of wrongdoing for preventing a vote on bursaries last term.

Although the University eventually backed down, agreeing to continue to provide students from poorer backgrounds with an inflation-linked £3,500 per year in cash, Vice Chancellor Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz was originally fiercely resistant to the idea. CUSU proposed an amendment to the university-wide vote on tuition fees that would have protected bursaries from any cuts, but the Vice Chancellor declared the union’s proposal was “in substance and effect incompatible” with the fees vote’s main purpose.

The move outraged many JCR Presidents, who variously branded Borysiewicz’ decision “reprehensible”, “rushed, clumsy and not carefully considered” and “in breach of… democratic processes”. CUSU said the Vice Chancellor “undemocratically and illegitimately REFUSED to allow a vote”, and even Professor Nick Gay, a member of decision-making body the University Council, said he was “surprised the VC has made this decision.”

However, the University avoided further criticism with a very public climb down. Or at least, it had done so until two days ago, when University Computing Service staff member and academic politician, Bruce Beckles challenged Borysiewicz’ authority to make that decision. Under article K5 of the University’s Statutes and Ordinances, which allows academics to demand an investigation into alleged “contravention” of University rules, Beckles argued that the Vice Chancellor’s decision was “unreasonable.”

Beckles’ argument rests on a disagreement with the Vice Chancellor over the bursary amendment’s compatibility with the main vote on fees. The Vice Chancellor argued that the inclusion of a commitment to maintain current bursary levels would interfere with a future university “Access Agreement”; Beckles claimed that “the condition on bursary provision does not necessarily require any modification of the Access Agreement”. In a letter to Borysiewicz seen by The Cambridge Student, Beckles wrote that “it seems at best perverse, and at worst some form of malfeasance” to describe the amendment as incompatible.

According to K5 rules, the alleged contravention must be investigated by none other than the Vice Chancellor himself. In the event he comes to a conclusion that the complainant is unsatisfied with, the final decision lies with the University Commissary, a figure who acts as an independent arbitrator. The University Press Office was unavailable for comment at the time of going to press.

Photo & Story: James Burton