Oxford Magazine Eighth Week, Trinity Term, 2008 7

 

If I were very Rich

 

I am not good at money, and have never tried hard enough

to succeed in getting rich. But occasionally I dream of it.

My children used to urge me to write a blood-and-thunder

book to establish the family fortunes, and J.K. Rowling

is for me an icon of hope – indeed, I once wrote a piece

in the Waiting Room at Reading with the children milling

round me, but, though it was well received, it did not

make me millions.

Still, I sometimes dream, often imagining how with sufficient

wealth I could undo some of the damage being inflicted

on our institutions. Years ago I thought how good

it would be to have Demerit Awards, to go to all those who

had not been given merit awards, and of approximately

the same value, but 10% more to make up for injured

feelings.

At my last Governing Body Meeting I lapsed into a

Farewell Address, in which I told my colleagues that the

three things they were going to have to do were, to pay

themselves properly, to pay undergraduates to come and

be taught by them, and to maintain the independence of

the College from the University. I expect I have been forgiven

by now, and in any case can reasonably expect the

first and third of my admonitions to be taken up by others,

but it seems to me that we are missing the point about

undergraduate access.

We have many Access Funds to help those already here

who have financial difficulties, and we spend money encouraging

people to think of coming to Oxford, but we

have left untouched the biggest disincentive, the prospect

of student debt. Although it is generally true that Oxford

graduates earn more than non-Oxford men, and that coming

to Oxford can be seen as a good investment careerwise,

it is not so for all, and does not seem so to many. The

Government cannot do anything – it would not be fair on

tax-payers to tax those who do not go to a university so as

to give those who do an even more generous deal. But it is

something a private benefactor could help alleviate, if he

cared for the long-term future of Oxford.

If I were very rich, I should re-establish Entrance Awards

– and at a meaningful level. Those who won them would

be able to come to Oxford, all fees paid and with adequate

funds for living costs, and go down to a debt-free future.

It might be necessary, in order to conform with current

rules and expectations, for them to borrow money during

their time at Oxford, but they could borrow it from

the Entrance Awards Fund, and when they went down,

the loan would be written off. There would be two conditions:

they should not take out any other loans, and they

should not engage in any paid employment; the former

condition to prevent possible abuse of the student loan

system, the latter to ensure that the vacations were, apart

from reasonable holiday time, devoted to making full use

of the academic opportunities offered.

There would be no means test. Although means tests

are very popular in the present age, they are cumbersome

to operate, and give rise to covert cheating. And although

some would be given money that their fathers could have

afforded, it would still be an incentive to the young to win

the money by their own efforts rather than be silver-spoon

fed by Dad.

Many benefactors want the recipients of the bounty

to follow the same path as they once did, but I would not

prescribe any particular course of study, having myself

changed before coming up, and again during my undergraduate

years. Award-holders should be entitled to

follow any course of study that they could pursue with

profit: some might choose badly, but better an enthusiastic

chasing a will o’ the wisp than a reluctant keeping to the

strait and narrow. Nevertheless, I have preferences, which

would be reflected not in the courses to be studied at Oxford,

but in the subjects on which the scholarships should

be awarded. In my school-days I missed out on advanced

mathematics and Greek. These would be the core of the

examination. They are subjects difficult to learn without

being actively taught, and ones where school teaching is

particularly effective. Successful candidates might well go

on to read Classical Honour Mods and Greats, or Mathematics,

or Mathematics and Philosophy, or Physics and

Philosophy, or PPE, or . . . . Whatever their Final Honour

School, they would come to Oxford with the great advantage

of being both literate and numerate. And the fact

that these highly desirable awards were available would

have a powerful effect on schools, overcoming present

curriculum arrangements that usually exclude such combinations,

and thereby helping bridge the gulf between

C.P. Snow’s two cultures.