The newest batch of Oxford undergraduates tell Josie Dixon their thoughts on tuition fees.

Michaelmas 2012 sees Oxford’s first intake of undergraduates under the government’s new fees regime, which has tripled the cost of tuition. Controversy is unabated over the rights and wrongs: whether £9,000 per year is too much for students or too little for the University; whether student loans constitute a debt, a tax, or an investment; and whether a university education is a bargain, a rip-off, or simply priceless. I spoke to a selection of this year’s freshers, to gauge the mood and hear their views on what has changed (or not) under the new funding system.

I asked first of all whether the new fee structure had caused a debate among their peers at school. “Massively!” recalls Evie Snow, now reading English and French at St Anne’s. “I went to a public school so the majority of students were already paying for education. That does mean most didn’t have many fi nancial worries, but many were also supported by the school, or often the army, so the idea of having to pay triple fees for university was not popular and caused a lot of heated discussion.”

At a state sixth-form college in Huddersfi eld, Eliot Ball (maths and computer science, St John’s) recalls that “most of the student body were quite cross and disillusioned.” Elsewhere in the state sector, there was more resignation. Tess Colley (French, Worcester) comments: “To be honest, it almost didn’t [cause a debate]. It seemed inevitable, but it didn’t feel real – such huge amounts of money. Only a small minority went to the demonstrations.” However, Colley herself feels that, “[It’s] outrageous that people the year before me getting the same education are £6,000 a year better off, and the politicians setting the fees got theirs for free.” In some quarters resentment followed outrage. Ball remarks that some of his contemporaries were shoulder – to their loss. It would be a brave step to take your grudge against the government and throw away your life.”

So did it make a difference to applications? Montana Jackson (medicine, St Peter’s) thinks so. “Several friends didn’t apply for that reason,” she says. “There was not enough information – debt was a big deal and it turned a lot of people away.”

Countering the perception of fees as a financial deterrent remains a challenge for Oxford, particularly in combination with perceived social barriers. A recent survey by the Sutton Trust reported that nearly two-thirds of teachers in secondary state schools believe that Oxford takes less than one third of its students from the state sector, though the figure is in fact 57 per cent. Sir Ivor Crewe, Master of Univ, remarked in a recent college newsletter that Oxford “cannot offer places to bright 18-year-olds who don’t apply and they will not apply if their teachers are hostile or indifferent.” The answer to a bad press is better public relations, and students make the best ambassadors, helping to counteract the risk of increasing polarisation between the financially advantaged and disadvantaged in higher education. Seth Kitson, a 22-year-old coming to Oxford from St Andrews to study law as a second BA, is well-versed in the issues, having worked in widening access initiatives throughout his undergraduate years. “Part of me does die inside,” he says, at the talk of ‘crippling tuition fees’. He regards both sides of the debate as “guilty of misrepresentation”, but cites “narratives spun about huge up-front sums and the scale of debt” with “not enough coverage of scholarship schemes”. “Oxford has a good financial safety net for supporting students,” he maintains. “It’s in a hugely fortunate position with all its donors.”

The UNIQ summer schools for state school students play an important part in Oxford’s widening access campaign. Montana Jackson admits she very nearly didn’t apply to Oxford, feeling “unsure that I would be up to it”. Thankfully she changed her mind. “The UNIQ summer school for medicine helped to break the stereotype – normal people can go as well!”

For five days at LMH, summer school students lived like undergraduates, had a timetable with lectures and practical classes at the John Radcliffe Hospital, and role-played doctor-patient scenarios. “I met the lecturers, felt I could do this, went for it and got the place,” remembers Jackson. She is now mentoring others at her school. “It’s really rewarding to pass on advice – I wish that I’d had something similar.” Thanks to UNIQ and other outreach schemes at Oxford and Cambridge, Jackson’s school has had a record number of Oxbridge offers this year, though she feels “a lot of support from the teachers” was equally important. In light of this and many other issues, Oxford is investing enormous effort in programmes to support teachers and inform them of the University’s offering, both academic and financial. Oxford’s Student Recruitment team annually run a series of seven Regional Teachers’ Conferences and support new teachers in programmes for PGCE and Teach First.

On funding, Jackson says, “I’m quite lucky – there is a lot of help for lower income households; maximum help is pretty good and Oxford are matching the government maintenance grant.” This enables her to view her degree not in terms of value for money but “ just a great way to become a doctor.”

Eliot Ball sees the funding issue as unproblematic, and had no qualms about taking out the full loan. In spite of controversies at school, he says he “never had a strong reaction – it’s always best to take a quantitative approach. As a taxpayer I’ll end up paying anyway, and it is a tax as a percentage of income, so the amount paid back is not really related to the amount borrowed. I feel I should be paying for my education as I am the main beneficiary.”

For others, the connection (financial or otherwise) between a degree and employment prospects is less clear-cut. Maura Collins, reading classics and oriental studies at St John’s, observes with regret that “a degree has increasingly become merely a means to a job. Perhaps it’s because I’m a bit of a romantic, but I like the idea that a large part of the reason for going to university is just to learn, explore and enjoy your subject. I think the humanities in particular are getting quite hard hit because of this, as there now needs to be a direct link to ‘usefulness’ and ‘practicality’, which is more obvious in a science subject.

“I have had a lot of questions from friends and family about my degree and job prospects, but to be honest, I think there’s no point wasting your life doing something you don’t enjoy.” A passion which transcends financial concerns came across in many of the interviews. Several referred to Oxford as a “dream” and a long-held ambition, but there were other passions in evidence, too. As a Scottish student, Collins had the option of having her fees paid at a Scottish university, but says: “I had my heart set on religions and languages of the east alongside classics. Oxford is the only university in Britain which offers the combination of Sanskrit and classical Greek at undergraduate level.” She also opted to take a gap year in 2011-12, which meant that paying triple fees was a conscious choice, as the price of more valuable experiences.

Evie Snow made a similar decision in order to spend a year teaching and working for human rights in Togo, West Africa, and her animation about the country and its people (“The nicest I’ve ever met”) is inspiring. We discussed the disjunction between all this and Oxford; I recalled my own gap year with tuberculosis patients in a children’s hospital in Peru, and understood Snow’s qualms about the transition ahead (“I keep wondering whether it will be too much of a difference to reconcile”), but it was clear there would be no regrets, regardless of the financial stakes.

The dramatic changes felt by Oxford’s home students at the loss of government funding are not, of course, the whole story. Hannah Searson (English and French, St Anne’s) hails from Jersey; fees for ‘islands’ students were previously higher than for home students and have now been brought into line at £9,000, though they have to pay the same college fees as international students. Searson could have gone to university in France, but wanted to study English as part of her degree, and alternatives in the USA remain “way more expensive”. The same point was made by Billy Smith of Long Island, who decided to apply to study engineering at Christ Church after attending an orientation event run by Oxford in New York. His friends at NYU have the highest debts on graduation (he cites tuition fees of $60-65,000); in this context, Oxford is a bargain, and its tutorial system (compared with engineering classes of 20-60 at Princeton) has the edge over Ivy League universities. Smith’s academic goal is the “intellectual shell shock” that comes from being individually challenged in a way that is just not possible in a lecture hall.

Michelle Lai, coming from Hong Kong to read English at Harris Manchester, sees Oxford’s international fees as “high but stable. Having my parents as my financial sponsors means that I don’t have to worry about debts upon graduation, but it does make me realise that £20,000 a year doesn’t come without sacrifice. In a way, this makes me value my opportunity to study for a degree abroad and at one of the world’s finest universities even more.”

Parental sacrifice was also a theme among home students, but with comparatively little warning of the sums required – unlike international students with college funds started at birth – more drastic measures were being taken. Jackson cited parents of twins who were selling the family house to raise funds for their university education, and suggested that higher income households with larger outgoings may experience more of a deterrent than those at the lower end of the income spectrum where greater help is available.

Without exception the students interviewed resisted seeing this as a merely financial equation. “The worth of a degree cannot be directly measured against money,” says Lai. “Studying for a degree is part of a journey: the knowledge, the life-enhancing experiences and the friendship one gains are something that money cannot buy.”

Josie Dixon (University College, 1983) is a publishing and research training consultant, with more than 60 university clients in the UK, Europe and the USA.