Student Perspectives ) ENGLAND
When I arrived at the University of Oxford last September, I had no idea what to expect, but I knew one thing: I was going to take advantage of any opportunity I was afforded that I would not have gotten if I had stayed back in the states for all four years. I had a great experience my first two years at Northwestern University, my home institution, so I viewed it as a large sacrifice to give up a year there. To make up for that sacrifice, I was determined to experience new things and get involved with different activities at the university. One opportunity that came early on was the opportunity to represent my college, St. Anne’s, at the Oxford University Student Union (OUSU).
Although representing mostly British students as an American was a challenge, it was worthwhile because I gained a new understanding of challenges facing UK students. Through my experience as a student government representative, I realized that British students come to university with different expectations and different goals for their experience. For example, compared to American parents, British parents play a smaller role in financing their child’s education. Most of the funding comes from the government, and the majority of the remaining cost is paid by the student in the form of loans. The decision to come to university is then largely an independent one – the student will not only reap the rewards of the education but will also incur the cost. Also, UK university graduates face lower average incomes than U.S. university graduates, so British students are often more worried about debt, even though it rarely leads them to forgo a university education. All of this became very important when tuition fee changes came to the forefront of our discussions in OUSU Council.
The government was voting to allow universities to triple the cost that “home students” (students from the UK) would have to pay for tuition, and OUSU plays an important role in representing the viewpoint of Oxford students. Initially, I did not understand why Oxford students opposed the higher tuition fees. It seemed to me the increased funding would benefit them in several ways. The additional fees would allow universities more funding for athletic facilities, special academic programs, need-based and academic scholarships, among other worthy causes. The cost would still be well below the cost of most American universities, so it should be feasible to pay. However, I realized the short-sightedness in my viewpoint when I found out that many students cannot depend on parental contributions for tuition and accommodation payments. Given this cultural norm, such a drastic fee increase could make higher education impossible for some prospective students. This legislation is especially important for arts students, because their degrees do not necessarily lead to higher future salaries, making it even harder to pay off any debt accumulated.
The debate over tuition fees was heated, not only in OUSU Council but all over the country. I helped organize a group from St. Anne’s College to attend the protests in London, which were even televised on American news stations. OUSU secured funding for buses, so we were able to take several hundred Oxford students to demonstrate our opposition to the fee increases. Although I was disappointed that some students turned the protests to violent expressions of frustration, I was proud of our group for representing the opinions of students nationwide. There were also some protests in Oxford, such as the protest inside the Radcliffe Camera, which is part of the Bodleian Library.
Now, even though the outcome of the vote in Parliament was undesirable, the fight is not over. Later in the school year, OUSU campaigned for a motion of no-confidence in the national secretary of education. This was related to the tuition fee increases as well as massive funding cuts for arts education. OUSU successfully convinced Congregation, the governing body of Oxford University, to pass a motion of no-confidence in the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. Never before has such a motion been passed by Oxford or any other UK university. It will be very interesting to see what happens next, as other universities have followed Oxford’s lead and passed similar motions.
Learning about the finances of higher education in the UK was just one of the rewarding parts of being on OUSU Council. There was also a social component of the OUSU Representatives Committee, which involved having dinner every other week at the formal hall of a different college. We also socialized in the various college bars, where I discussed the differences between student government at Northwestern and Oxford with student leaders. The highlight of being on the OUSU Representatives Committee was attending Formal Hall at Christ Church, which is where they filmed the Great Hall in the Harry Potter films.
All in all, studying at the University of Oxford was an incredible experience, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in expanding their world view while having the time of their life!