Financial Guarantees and Fair Treatment
An interesting article from the Guardian has been bouncing around my Facebook feed of late. The author, Damien Shannon, was offered a place to read for an MSc in economic and social history at Oxford University (St. Hugh’s College). Shannon managed to find sufficient scholarships to pay the required fees, but he was not permitted to take up his place because he only had managed to put together £9000 per annum for living expenses, less than the £12,900 required. Shannon is now suing Oxford on the grounds that the required funds are excessive and unfairly exclude students who have neither the resources nor the need for the lifestyle that £12,900 brings. Whether Shannon’s suit has legal merit is far beyond my own competence, but I believe he nevertheless has a point that the required expenses are excessive and unfair. And while this blog post will be primarily discussing the issue of Oxford graduate student living expenses, the general issues will apply to any school with a similarly inflated living expense requirement.
Some of this will come down to an accounting game, but from my own experience it is quite possible for a single student at Oxford to live comfortably on much less than £12,900 per annum. Consider rent: Oxford estimates that graduate students will need £7,250 per annum for rent inclusive of utilities, or about £605/month. Perhaps some college accommodation ends up being that high, but the university-run graduate accommodation offers centrally-located rooms for as little as £445/month. Even better deals can be found within reasonable biking distance in private, shared flats. Food is estimated at £2,950, or £8/day. Certainly, if one wanted to eat in-college each day something like that would be needed. But a frugal graduate student can find somewhat cheaper food from Tesco’s or the nightly kebab vans. The remainder, £2,700, is for ‘general living costs’, including clothing, books and socializing. Shannon rightly points out this is rather over the top. Books are mostly unnecessary thanks to the well-stocked libraries. Some formal wear (e.g., sub-fusc) will be required, but that need not run more than a few hundred pounds, if that. Social expenses are a bit harder to quantify, but in my experience the main expenses will be pub meets (maybe once a week with ~£8 in drinks, so ~£416/year total) and restaurant outings (maybe once every two weeks, ~£10-15 in food/drink, for ~£325/year). There are of course some miscellaneous expenses on top of that, but they will hardly rise to the extra £1,500 or so.
All that is just to show that one can study comfortably, if frugally, at Oxford on significantly less than Oxford’s estimate, and Shannon’s budget of £9,000 seems quite doable. Now, I take it that the financial guarantee is in place more or less for the students’ sake. Universities such as Oxford do not want someone taking up a place only to end up living an impoverished life because they set aside too little money (and potentially dropping out because of that). Thus, according to the Guardian, St. Hugh’s wrote in its defense that “ the test of a student’s financial health is to ensure that they will be able to complete their courses without suffering financial difficulty and anxiety.” The policy is then paternalistic to a certain degree, but perhaps justifiably so given that the university is generally in a better position than prospective students to know the necessary living expenses. And there is some sense in overestimating living expenses in budgetary recommendations – better students come in with too much savings than too little. But the university’s credibility becomes undermined when the £12,900 is used not as a recommendation but a requirement. Given different students’ needs and budgeting abilities, it is quite reasonable to expect some – indeed, many – students to be able to manage on significantly less than the required amount.
The requirement is not only imprudent but unfair insofar as it ends up excluding some students of lesser means, and imposing unfair burdens on others. Shannon’s case is a good example of someone so excluded. An unfunded master’s degree is already unfortunately exclusionary. But given that fact, the university should do its utmost to minimize further exclusionary factors. The excessive living expenses are one such factor – it only allows students willing and able to support a more abundant lifestyle to study at Oxford. This is not to say that there should be no requirement for living expenses, but there is at least a strong prima facie case for it being much lower.
One might think, in reply to this, that those in Shannon’s position should simply take out a loan to make up for the remainder of the cost, then repay the loan entirely as soon as the course has ended. It’s hard to say from Shannon’s case how much of a live option this is, but this could at least allow him to take up the course. However, it only does so by imposing greater financial costs on people in Shannon’s situation – through interest and origination fees. It seems patently unfair that those of lesser financial means should end up having to pay more out of pocket for their education, or take out a loan that they do not need.
A more compelling argument has to do with scholarships. Many full scholarships, as I understand it, set students’ stipends on the basis of the university’s requirements. Lowering the financial requirement might then lead to a lowering of scholarships’ stipends. This has some positive effects, insofar as those scholarships could then afford to subsidize more students. But it could foreseeably harm other students who cannot live so frugally as Shannon (perhaps they have a family to support), as the scholarship would no longer be enough for them to study on. Any policy change would have to bear this in mind, but I suspect certain mechanisms (e.g., special scholarship allowances for students with families, or basing scholarships on official recommendations rather than requirements) could be implemented, if they’re not in place already, to avoid these negative effects.
I hope that even if Shannon does not win his court case, he manages to start a conversation that can challenge the received wisdom on living expenses and effect some more nuanced and flexible policies that would help expand access to education at institutions like Oxford.