I'd like to say a big welcome to Oxford to all the new students joining the University this year.
Not only does the University itself provide you with incredible opportunities, Oxford is a fantastic city in which to live and I know that you will thoroughly enjoy your time here, whether only for a year or much longer.
I was myself fortunate to study both as an undergraduate and postgraduate at the University and have lived in the City ever since, first serving as a City Councillor and, from 1987, as the Labour MP. I have always stood up for the interests of students as an MP. Since 2010 I have opposed funding cuts to Higher Education, campaigned against the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance and voted firmly against the trebling of tuition fees. Students are a vital part of what makes Oxford such a great city and I will always be on your side.
I therefore took a very close interest in the comments the Vice-Chancellor of the University made in his annual oration about his desire for Universities such as Oxford to be able to charge up to £16,000 in fees. It does seem clear that the Vice-Chancellor is making an outlier argument. There will be very little if any support for £16,000 fees, and I certainly wouldn't support them under any circumstance. He himself qualified his advocacy by including a criterion "that they are demonstrably not a barrier to student access"; but it is difficult to see how students especially from lower and middle income backgrounds would not be deterred by such a massive rise in fees, as they were when fees trebled to £9000. What's more, it risks reinforcing the stereotype which Oxford University has been trying to shake off, of its being such an elite institution that it is beyond the reach of most young people. While the fantastic bursary agreements which OUSU negotiated for students have done much to reverse the negative effects of the fee increase, further increases such as to £16,000 would be incredibly problematic for the University's attempts to improve access and widen participation.
What the Vice-Chancellor has done is put the question of higher education funding back on the agenda, and there is a problem to address. If it costs on average £7,000 more per year to educate a student at Oxford than is received in fees, that difference has to be made up either by drawing on the University's other resources, more external fundraising, including from alumni, greater government support or cutting the cost, and possibly the quality, of the education offered, which would be a very retrograde step. The Vice-Chancellor's remarks need to be seen as opening up this debate rather than providing its conclusion. As Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the University and College Union has said: "The University of Oxford should be looking to work with the rest of the sector to lobby for greater support and funding for higher education as a whole." It is important to remember the enormous cultural and economic benefits which the country gets from a thriving universities sector, which is why it's a shame the government has neglected higher education policy since the trebling of fees and cuts to the sector.
You also play an important role in deciding the future of higher education. The NUS, OUSU and your JCRs and MCRs have all protested government policy and lobbied for increased support. Student activism, rather than apathy, is the answer. When students get organised and active they can make a real difference, whether on higher education policy or in the wider community. That's why I encourage you to get involved in campaigns across the University, be an active member of the community and see Oxford from outside the spires. There is incredible opportunity in Oxford, but the wards I represent also include some of the most deprived areas in the country, and student campaigns have been vital in achieving improvements in Oxford such as on the Living Wage or homelessness provision. Getting involved in the political life of the city can be one of the most rewarding things you do while in Oxford, and I look forward to meeting many of you over the coming months and years. Do get in touch at Andrew.Smith.MP@gmail.com if there are any points you would like to raise with me. You can also follow me on Twitter at @OxfordLabourMP.