Oxford Univ.: Taking Power From the Students?

February 3, 2006 — -- Contracts, legal threats and ill-feeling among students suggest that all is not well at Oxford, the university famed for its dreamy spires and the occasional dash of controversy.

The cause of the current consternation? A new plan, revealed in Tuesday's edition of the Times of London, that undergraduate students sign a legally binding contract with the university that would require them to, among other things, attend classes. If they don't, they could be held in breach of contract.

The move is viewed as a gambit by the university to fend off litigation from students who, when faced with a tuition hike in the fall, might be more inclined to sue the university, blaming it for any academic problems they might face.

That would not seem to be an idle fear, given that in 2002 the University of Wolverhampton agreed to pay £30,000 (about $53,000) in an out-of-court settlement to a student who filed suit for breach of contract, claiming that overcrowded classes and poorly written assignments from tutors kept him from doing better.

The Oxford contract, the first of its kind in Great Britain, has already been passed by the Conference of Colleges, a university-wide body. It will now be sent to Oxford's 31 undergraduate colleges for approval. If the undergraduate colleges approve it, the contact could come into force as early as this fall.

The contract is simply "intended to codify the existing, informal agreement between college and student," a university spokeswoman said.

Not so, says Emma Norris, a fourth-year undergraduate and president of the Oxford University Students' Union, who fears that the agreement leaves students "vulnerable and with no room for recourse".

Currently, students at Oxford can approach the Student Union to press the university on what they see as unfair treatment, whether in the case of an increase in fees, availability of accommodations, or changes to courses.

The signing of such a contract means that students could no longer put pressure on the university, either by using the traditional mechanism of the Student Union or, as some college heads anticipate, through more modern, i.e., litigious means.

And, since the contract makes no provision for minimum hours of teaching per week, students worry that it presages a shift away from the tutorial system of teaching that lies at the heart of an Oxford education.

Although a university spokeswoman insisted that the contract in no way reflects poorly on Oxford's "commitment to the tutorial system," students fear just the opposite.

As of 2005, Oxford has run up an accumulated teaching and research deficit of more than $150 million, which raises serious questions as to whether the university can afford to keep the tutorial system going.

And some say that a contract that only requires a college to "make such teaching provision for undergraduate students as it reasonably decides is necessary" leaves students with few options but to take whatever the university doles out to them.

"This contract is so general in its wording that it leads one to worry about all kinds of possible changes that the university could make, from accommodations to fees to courses," says Norris. "And students would have no power to question them."

College heads seem puzzled by the fuss. One of them claims that students were invited to offer their views on the contract but were "too uncoordinated" to attend the meetings. Norris insists that "no such invitation was ever made," and that students have not been consulted on the subject since 2002, when the contract was in its earliest stages.

Historically, the Oxford University Student Union has played an active role in challenging the university's policies. In 2003, Will Straw, the son of British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, led protests against the government's proposed introduction of tuition fees for students.

Come September, however, the new batch of undergraduates will have to start paying £3,000 ($5,325) in annual tuition fees. After that concession, the Student Union seems determined not to let this contract pass through without a fight.

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