Defending Damien Shannon.

[Update: This post is now also available at Liberal Conspiracy]

Amidst the discussion of Damien Shannon’s decision to sue St Hugh’s College, Oxford on the grounds of ‘selection by wealth’, it seems worthwhile as a graduate student at Oxford for me to add my views, if only to express deep sympathy with Shannon’s claims and to stress just how vital and valid they are.

As The Observer reported yesterday, Oxford requires that graduate students demonstrate that they have £12,900 annually to live on. St Hugh’s plans to defend this requirement on the grounds that it is necessary to ensure that students will ‘be able to complete their courses without suffering financial difficulty and anxiety’. Furthermore, St Hugh’s denies that this requirements falls “disproportionately within” the lower socioeconomic groups. Shannon was only able to demonstrate that he had £9,000 to live on, and planned to make up the difference through part time work. But St Hugh’s, following university policy, deemed this insufficient, and so Shannon was refused a place for this reason alone.

The fact is that the requirement of a £12,900 living allowance is a farce. My accommodation, courtesy of my college, costs £4,500 for the duration of my academic year, and includes all utilities. This means that students need to prove that their income after accommodation costs is £700 a month, or £23 a day. Students could dine at the Randolph Hotel on a regular basis and still not need that much.

Moreover, even the scholarships reflect this. My personal living allowance, generously granted by the university, is £9,490 a year. The Arts and Humanities Research Council grants some graduate students the same amount. That’s only £490 more than the amount Shannon had, and it’s a significant £3,410 less than the university’s requirement. And yet I know from experience that it is ample to live on. I am not suffering from financial difficulty and anxiety. I’m still perfectly capable of engaging thoroughly in university life.

The only difference is that unlike Shannon, I was fortunate enough to have parents who could vouch that they would make up that wholly unnecessary difference and bridge the financial gap for me. I do not intend on taking any extra money from them to supplement my allowance, but the reason I am here is that I showed that I could. Otherwise, I would have faced the same personal tragedy that Shannon did.

That should strike anyone as an obvious case of injustice. And it makes the claim that this doesn’t disproportionately affect people in lower socioeconomic groups very doubtful indeed.

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