The latest episode in the long-running series of Oxbridge admissions 'scandals' is one of the more dramatic ones. Damien Shannon is suing St Hugh's College for discrimination, after it knocked him back for a postgraduate degree, when he failed to provide evidence that he had the funds in the bank to cover living expenses. The college claimed he needed £12,900 to keep himself housed and fed for 12 months; Shannon counters that this threshold is set too high, and he was in any case planning to support himself with paid work. His legal case is based on the argument that 'the effect of the financial conditions of entry is to select students on the basis of wealth'.
I can see where he's coming from. As well as having an air of paternalistic nosiness, this policy (which is not in fact confined to St Hugh's) does seem to favour the kind of student who can dip into a trust fund. On the other hand I can see the college's point of view too: it doesn't want to give a precious place to someone who won't make it through the year, and so deny it to someone else who would have done. Oxford is an expensive city, and the breakdown for the £12,900 figure isn't implausible. The argument about paid work is a bit of a red herring, since Oxford students are only allowed to work up to six hours a week. It might be said that that rule - which us designed to protect study time - is the real problem. Be that as it may (more on this below), that's not in fact what Shannon is arguing.
The underlying issue is that UK universities now sit in an uncomfortable space between the state and the private sector. Oxford is a public institution with a duty to society at large, a responsibility to behave equitably and to avoid wealth discrimination. But the universities don't receive enough state funding to survive on this alone, so they need to make money commercially too, by bringing in grants, by partnering the private sector, and by maximising fee income for degrees. (This has long been the case with postgraduate degrees; the government's decision to impose hefty tuition fees on undergraduates pushes first degrees in the same direction.) Commercial transactions are by the nature socially exclusive. I can't sue Aston Martin for discrimination because I can't afford one of their cars: I just have to accept it's how the cookie crumbles.
Shannon's beef with St Hugh's isn't, for sure, about the cost of the degree itself, but about their insistence that he can prove he can keep himself while studying. But from one point of view it's all part of a continuum: the college, which is retailing an expensive product, wants to be assured that all the payments that are due will come in. It's rather like a bank carrying out checks to make sure a mortgage-holder isn't sub-prime.
Of course, this is a simplistic picture of the commercialisation of higher education. I very much doubt anyone at St Hugh's would be comfortable with the banking analogy. In reality there are many of us who work in the sector, and indeed in the political classes too, who still defend the idea that learning has a collective value in which we all have a share. There are certainly free-market ideologues around, but that's the point: higher education as a whole is stuck in this strange, uncertain place betwixt two sectors, and indeed two rival ideologies.
Governments are equally indecisive, for different reasons. New Labour introduced tuition fees for undergraduates, and the coalition ramped them up, with the intention of creating a competitive market-place for first degrees. But there's a catch. A genuine free market would mean students having complete freedom over what they studied, and paying the full costs of their degrees. That would have the economically disastrous effect of driving them away from science, engineering and medicine programmes, which cost a fortune to maintain but in the long term help to bankroll UK PLC. Heaven forbid that the nation's universities should be filled with students pursuing cultural enrichment through degrees like English literature, when they could and should be feeding the knowledge economy. So we're left with us a funny hybrid: a free market that it is also a huge social engineering operation.
The dispute between Damien Shannon and St Hugh's isn't really about Oxbridge elitism, although that certainly colours the way it's seen. It is, fundamentally, a symptom of our collective uncertainty about what higher education is for. At a deeper level, it's about the landscape of our society as a whole, as the tectonic plates of European statism and neoliberal economics continue to pull apart.
These grandiose reflections aren't, I accept, much help to the nation's students. So let me sign off with a pragmatic suggestion. I have long argued that Oxford and Cambridge should be offering part-time postgraduate degrees, like most other UK universities. The arrangement is simple: you study half-time and pay half fees, and the degree takes twice as long. I've heard all the arguments against, and it's probably true that most part-time students don't experience the same sense of intellectual intensity or community that Oxbridge has traditionally fostered. But despite all the pressures I've mentioned above, we in academia remain part of wider society, and we retain a responsibility to be fair, just and open. However the public-private issue ends up being resolved, if indeed it is, there are relatively simple, practical steps we can take to make higher education more accessible.