Current Affairs

University over-ruled its own committee for grad application fee hike

New evidence has emerged which shows that Oxford University ignored the recommendations of its own committee when it raised the fee to apply for postgraduate courses in 2016.

The revelation comes as Congregation, the University’s Governing Body, votes on whether to abolish the fee. Postal votes are being accepted until Wednesday.

In 2016, the University sought to raise the fee from £60 to £75. This followed a £25 fee being initially approved in 2006, before it was doubled to £50 in 2009. In 2015, the relevant committees responsible for day-to-day business approved the increase to £60.

12 months later, the Graduate Admissions Committee and the Education Committee were asked to approval another increase, this time to £75. However, minutes from meetings on January 20 and January 29 show that the Graduate Admissions Committee had “agreed not to recommend the increase to Education Committee” because it would “risk losing talented applicants” and would negatively “impact on Oxford’s competitive position.”

The Graduate Admissions Committee is primarily focused on graduate admissions, and reports to the Education Committee, which is one of the five main committees of Council, the principal executive body of the University.

Raising the fee has always had opposition, which has only grown since increases accelerated in 2015. Sciences in particular are regularly most vocal in their criticism of fee increases. These divisions, such as the mathematical, physical, engineering, and life sciences division (MPLS) and the medical sciences division, face more competition since they do not benefit from Oxford’s strong reputation in the humanities. There is also concern that the fee applies per programme, rather than per applicant, which is practised at other universities such as Cambridge.

However, the attempted increase in 2016 was particularly contentious. The Graduate Admissions Committee worried that talented applicants from lower-income backgrounds would be put off by the fee. Ciaran Fairhurst, now a PhD student at the University of Sussex, told Research Professional News that he had been forced to borrow money to pay the fee when applying to the university in 2016.

“I come from a working-class background and was doing my undergraduate degree in Brighton, which is a very expensive city to live in. So, when it got to the point where I was applying for PhDs, I actually had to borrow the money off a friend to pay the fee.” Although he was offered a place, financial reasons contributed to his decision to turn down the offer.

Mr Fairhurst was not refunded his fee as a result, but the University has made progress on fee waivers for low-income students and those from low-income countries. Residents of 32 countries listed as low-income by the World Bank, mainly in Africa, can request a waiver for the fee, as well as most students already studying another graduate course at Oxford. Further, applicants to the MPLS, Medical Sciences, and Social Sciences divisions can now apply to multiple research courses for one fee.

Professor Peter Jezzard was the chair of the Graduate Admissions Committee at the time. He told The Oxford Blue that the Committee had recommended this, as well as support for UK applicants who received financial support on previous courses, and was generally “glad that this … has been taken forward”. Prof. Jezzard emphasised that he agreed with the fee in principle, thought the rise “was not a warranted increase.”

The Committee was also concerned about the “negative impact on Oxford’s competitive position.” It was noted at the time that “Oxford would be a clear outlier” because out of hundreds of UK universities, Oxford, Cambridge and LSE are unique in charging for research programme applications; UCL only charges for taught postgraduate programs rather than research ones. Cambridge University, for example, charges £65, whilst UCL currently charges £80. Imperial’s programmes are free to apply to, except for those at their business school, which cost £125, compared to £150 at Oxford’s Saïd Business School.

Overruled

Despite the Graduate Admissions Committee (GAC) decision, the proposal was brought to the Education Committee which overruled the decision.

Citing financial pressures to find around £600,000 in further savings or revenue, the then Registrar was “the person who really over-ruled GAC’s recommendation”, according to Professor Jezzard. It was estimated that the 25% rise would raise about two thirds of the required sum to balance the Academic Administration Division budget (AAD). Alternative measures included closing the Internships Office, stopping visa advice, stopping the provision of careers advice to alumni, and cutting statistical analysis on applications.

Professor Ewan McKendrick was the Registrar between 2011-18. The only known Registrar to work from Lady Margaret Hall (the records go back to before 1508), he stressed that “the AAD budget target could not be achieved only through efficiency savings”.

Whilst the fee increase may help to meeet the AAD budget target, it is not the AAD who carry out the administrative work on postgraduate admissions. This responsibility lies with individual departments, who do not receive a portion of the application fee. The department also does not receive more money if more people apply to programmes in their department.

More broadly, the £2.2 million the University sees in revenue from the fee “comprises 0.12% of its annual budget” according to Dr Michael Cassidy, who supports the move to abolish the fee. Oxford University reported net assets of £4 billion, excluding colleges, in its 2019 financial report.

Minutes from January 29 2016 note that “the committee reluctantly agreed” to endorse the increase, but forced Mr McKendrick to commit to there being no further increase for three years. The expression of reluctance is very unusual, which emphasises the steep resistance in the Education Committee at the time.

Why does this matter?

The revelation that the University forced through the fee hike is important because this March there is a challenge to the entire fee system. PhD student Ben Fernando and researcher Mike Cassidy submitted a resolution to scrap the fee entirely which was debated at Congregation on March 10. Congregation is the University’s sovereign body and has 5,456 members; the debate took place in the Sheldonian Theatre.

Members of Congregation are permitted to vote via email and must register by noon on Wednesday to do so by emailing congregation.meeting@admin.ox.ac.uk stating their name, affiliation, and that they are a member of Congregation. Ballots can be returned up until noon on Friday (April 3rd).

Until now, that the University’s own committee advised against the fee increase had been kept under wraps. The fact that many of those intimately involved in the decision making processes in the university were concerned by plans to raise the fee, but were ignored, will make all think twice about their judgement on the fee, and shows that the idea of the application fee as simply another revenue source has not won the day at all.

Indeed, campaigners such as Ben Fernando will be hoping that Oxford takes the route of Imperial in abolishing the fee all together. As he puts it, “Oxford should lead the world on access, not use the fact that others do not as an excuse from doing so either.”

“It is shocking to read that the University’s own committees expressed such strong reluctance to agree to the fee uplifts, and were ignored. These minutes make clear that the arguments are driven by financial, rather than equality, concerns. The University needs to think carefully about whether this is really the image it wants to be projecting.”

Ewan McKendrick and Oxford University Graduate Admissions have been contacted for comment.

Additional reporting from Anna van Wingerden, Phoebe Hennell, Anvee Bhutani, Gabriella Emery, and Jaimini Patel.