It has been by any standards a demanding academic year and, as it draws to a close, I wanted to share a few thoughts with you about our University. This is not the time or place for extended reflections − they come traditionally in the Vice-Chancellor’s annual oration at the start of Michaelmas Term. But since I last wrote to colleagues in March, further significant developments have taken place in the UK higher education landscape and more are in the offing. It is principally on these that I want to focus briefly here.
In my last letter, I set out the thinking behind, and the substance of, the University’s proposals on undergraduate funding from 2012 − both tuition charges and financial support arrangements − in the light of major changes being made by Government to the higher education funding landscape, namely severe cuts to teaching budgets and the raising of the ceiling for tuition charges to £9,000 a year.
In that letter I also explained that the University’s funding proposals would form part of our wider submission to the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) on plans to widen student access to Oxford. Our major targets in that Access Agreement, as submitted in mid-April, relate to increasing the percentage of UK undergraduates from schools and colleges which historically have had limited progression to Oxford; increasing the percentage of UK undergraduates from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds; increasing the percentage of UK undergraduates from neighbourhoods with low participation in higher education; and meeting the official benchmark on disabled students at Oxford.
In mid-July, OFFA approved and published Oxford’s Access Agreement, as well as those of nearly 140 other universities and colleges in England. Comparison with the agreements of other institutions confirms the outstanding generosity of the financial provisions we are making. Oxford’s financial support for lower-income students is likely to be the most generous in the country: the lowest-income students will receive support totalling £10,000 in their first year and over £6,000 in every later year. While many universities are offering either fee waivers to offset tuition charges or bursaries to help with living costs, Oxford will provide both. Based on current student profiles, one in six will receive a fee waiver, while one in four will receive a bursary. In fact, Oxford will spend more of the collegiate University’s additional fee income on access and financial support than any other university in England – and, at 50%, nearly double the sector average.
Such generosity reflects our determination to ensure that financial concerns should not be a barrier to studying here. We remain passionately committed to the principle that Oxford is for the most talented students regardless of background or financial circumstance.
But such generosity comes at a price. It means having less funding available to do other important things that help make this University one of the best in the world. And it means that the gap between the true cost of an Oxford education and the income we receive for it will remain painfully wide. As we seek to build on the remarkable success to date of the Oxford Thinking campaign, it is evident that philanthropic support for teaching and learning is going to assume even greater importance.
As with all agreements with OFFA, our Access Agreement is for one year only and will be reviewed after 12 months. We will therefore want and need to monitor the impact of the arrangements both internally and externally with care and attention − not least because it is clear that the higher education landscape in this country is likely to remain in flux. We already have notice of that in the recent government White Paper on Higher Education entitled ‘Students at the Heart of the System’. The title might be read as implying that this would be an innovation. Speaking for Oxford, it is anything but. The highly focussed, personalised style of our teaching has long been central to what we do. It helps explain why our existing levels of student satisfaction are high and why Oxford continues to excel in rankings of UK universities. For example, we recently completed a decade at the top of The Times Good University Guide league table.
The consultation timetable on the White Paper is highly concentrated and unhelpfully positioned in the academic year (it closes on 20 September), but we are taking steps to engage with it as effectively as possible in the circumstances. While its content is broad-based (ranging from the funding system to student numbers to the regulatory framework), there are significant omissions. For example, it does not deal with research. For Oxford, where the virtuous circle between research and teaching is vital, it means the story is only half told. However, a strategy on research and innovation is promised later in the calendar year. Competing as we do in a global market for research talent and resources, it is crucial that a sound and supportive national framework for the future is securely in place, and we will do all we can to ensure that is the case.
The novelist and Oxford alumnus, L P Hartley, famously asserted: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Contemplating the higher education landscape at the moment, it strikes me that the same might be said of the future − but with the added feature that we still don’t know quite how they do things there. Part of the challenge for us as a world-leading university, and one of which so much is rightly expected, is to help to shape that future creatively and constructively; to make it a place where our enduring commitment to the pursuit and sharing of knowledge through the highest standards of learning, scholarship and research can flourish for both individual and public benefit.
I hope you will enjoy a restorative summer break and return refreshed and reinvigorated for the shared challenges to come.