A group of postgraduate students claim Oxford University does not deliver what they hoped.
About a year ago, two Oxford alumni published a critical review of their experience as graduate students at the University of Oxford. The former recipients of the prestigious Rhodes scholarship described "a frustrating academic experience" in an "outdated academic system" where advisers "spend more time avoiding emails than supervising students" and "where DPhil students struggle to have supervisors read their dissertations before submission, and poor supervision is the rule, not the exception".
The article in the Harvard Crimson caused a minor storm in the press. University officials hurried to deny the criticism. But the Oxford apparatus remains in urgent need of reform for the sake of its students.
The economics of academia
Most colleges welcome postgraduate students as an additional source of income. The statistics are telling: from 1990 until 2007, the number of undergraduates increased by 1,033, which amounts to 10% growth. During that same period the number of postgraduates increased by 2,984, a 75% rise, and the bulk of this increase occurred in the past seven years.
The economic reasons are very clear. The departments have an interest in accepting more postgraduates because 63% of them are overseas students, and therefore pay more than three times as much as domestic students. Aside from the university tuition fees, colleges charge postgraduates additional annual fees of about £2,000. Furthermore, students pay £3,000-£4,000 forcollege accommodation, not including food.
The result is a system in serious academic overload. Last year, a high-ranking university official said: "We are not approaching the point of maximum students that we can take. We already passed it. We need to cut down."
The colleges are by far the biggest beneficiaries of this postgraduate overload, as they invest scant amounts in postgraduate education relative to their income from postgraduates (in striking contrast to undergraduates). Indeed, many postgraduates come to realise that, contrary to the idealised image that colleges post on their websites and pamphlets, the only facilities college can provide for them are social, not academic.
Postgraduates are theoretically assigned a college adviser. Yet what they find when they arrive is that they should not expect their college adviser to read their work, or to provide any substantial feedback (though a few kind dons do). In fact, many postgraduates are not approached by their advisers during their entire course of study. In Lincoln College, for example, a survey last year found that 24% of the postgraduate students reported they do not see their college adviser at all, and another 24% reported meeting their college adviser only once a year. Indeed, even when postgraduates do get to meet their advisers, they are often not experts on the student's subject area, or are unaware of what the particulars of the student's research are. The situation is no better at other colleges.
In order to maintain a pretence of serving an academic function, colleges employ empty ceremonies. For example, some colleges practise the "collections", a ceremony in which the students meet with the college rector, senior tutor and their college adviser in order to review their progress once a year. However, these collections are scheduled in five-minute intervals.
The wealthier Oxford colleges like St John's, Christ Church, Nuffield and All Souls transfer money annually to the poorer colleges such as St Peters, Linacre, St Edmund Hall or Pembroke in a historic agreement that dates back to the 19th century. This is not altruistic. Should the college system collapse or become competitive, the UK government might finally investigate how the £2.7bn college endowments and incomes are run. Then the government might begin taxing the colleges for their supposedly academic expenses.
Moreover, should the college system run into crisis, the academic and financial inequalities between rich colleges and poor colleges will become public. Students in poorer colleges generally pay higher college fees, higher rents and higher food costs compared with the richer colleges, as the Oxford University Student Union College Inequality Report of 2003 showed.
As if Oxford tuition is not expensive enough, some colleges further burden students with rent charges higher than the average cost in the city. Why then do the students stay in college accommodation? The answer is that most do not stay for long. Colleges can charge fees above market prices because they have a captive supply of postgraduates from overseas, who come for one-year programmes and either assume that college accommodation is a better deal than private accommodation or are simply unable to find accommodation from abroad.
In most colleges, students are excluded from having representatives in the governing body. Where students do have representatives in important bodies, they are asked to leave once the agenda moves to the "reserved matters", even when these matters directly affect students' welfare. The result is that students' interests are the first to be sacrificed when colleges face a shortfall in cash.
The university has no jurisdiction over these matters. John Hood, the vice-chancellor, explained last year that students should solve their issues through mutual understandings within the colleges. But students cannot address important issues within colleges because they are excluded from information and representation. The dons serve as the legislative, executive and judicial body of these communities. Given that the salaries and benefits of bursars and dons depend on how they allocate college resources, including students' college fees, it is obvious that there is a deep conflict of interest that underlies the exclusion of students and explains the occasionally strict disciplinary measures taken against them.
The postgraduate community in Oxford has so far been unable to reform centuries-old power structures.
The government has already criticised Oxford for not modernising its governing system, but even the government is unlikely to be aware of the full scope and magnitude of problems. Given that one of Oxford's main sources of income is state funds, the government must insist on an independent commission of inquiry, whose recommendation will be obligatory. It would be naive to expect the dons to initiate the necessary reforms. They have already thwarted two reform attempts by the current vice-chancellor.
Some solutions are quite simple, yet they will be considered radical for Oxford: giving students true representation in college governing bodies; eliminating college fees; creating a bill of students' rights and expectations regarding their education and creating effective mechanisms ensuring academic accountability and enforcement of university regulations. Similar solutions are already basic practices in universities worldwide.
Despite all the problems, Oxford has great potential and reforms can improve it immensely. Top students from around the world compete for places. They produce cutting-edge research, often despite insufficient academic and welfare support. They form and participate in a wide array of exciting social activities, societies and clubs. These aspects of Oxford must be maintained and supported. Yet the university does not fulfil its side of the deal and in its current configuration, it is questionable if Oxford deserves its excellent students.
Doron Shultziner did a PhD at Oxford. This article is endorsed by Martin Bruderer, Ahamarshan JN and Asim Khan.
· This article was amended on Tuesday April 28 2008.