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Court hears St Hugh's postgraduate admissions case

“I am prepared to appeal all the way to the European Court of Human Rights if I have to,” suing ex-applicant tells Cherwell
Xin Fan on Friday 22nd February 2013
Photograph: Frederick Bowerman

A postgraduate applicant who claimed St Hugh’s College refused to admit him on the basis of financial means has told Cherwell he is “prepared to appeal all the way to the European Court of Human Rights if [he has] to."

Damien Shannon, 26, filed a claim against the College last month after he was unable to demonstrate that he could meet living costs of £12,900 on top of his master’s tuition fee, thereby forfeiting his offer.

He claimed that students were being selected on “on the basis of wealth, [excluding] those not in possession of it”, meaning the less well-off were "disproportionately discriminated against."

After the hearing on 15 February at Manchester County Court, Judge Armitage QC reserved judgment, and will deliver it with written reasoning at a later unspecified date.

St Hugh’s have argued that fulfilling the University’s ‘financial guarantee’ guards a student’s wellbeing so that there is no risk of academic focus being distracted by money worries.

During the hearing, Oxford’s director of graduate admissions, Dr Jane Sherwood, said she had been mistaken in suggesting that other universities such as Exeter and Goldsmith’s College, London, assessed applicants' means in the same way as Oxford.

Shannon accepted the admission of false comparison, but told Cherwell he was still of the opinion that “refusing access to those who cannot afford nightclubs etc. is manifestly unreasonable and cannot have been the outcome of any kind of expert analysis."

The University, a separate legal entity from St Hugh’s, gave an explanation for the size of the guarantee. A spokesperson said, “The core of the minimum recommended amount for annual living costs comes from a survey undertaken each year of domestic bursars in every college.

“Domestic bursars manage accommodation, catering etc., and have expert knowledge of the local costs of core items of students’ living costs and expenditure. The survey provides estimated costs of things like accommodation, food, utility bills and other items, as well as estimates of costs for future years.”

They stressed that the £12,900 figure still lies below the £13,726 national minimum doctoral stipend provided by the UK Research Councils, which “gives us confidence that it is not an overestimate."

Shannon contested that “the expertise of the bursars must be tested by cross examination." In his court submission, he highlighted what he called “optional” costs, including “an unspecified amount for ‘sport and leisure activities’ – I wonder whether this includes punting."

“Every single [cost] is intended to support a typical lifestyle,” he continued. “None of them have anything to do with being financially able to complete study.”

Shannon demands the financial guarantee be struck down or comprise “essential expenditure based on actual research of likely living costs”. He commented, “It is absolutely insane that people are turned away for not having money they do not need.”

Shannon maintains that he is being denied his human right to education as prescribed by the European Convention on Human Rights, making him a “victim” under the UK Human Rights Act.

“Oxford is in the very fortunate position of having enormous resources at its disposal, but precious little of this serves to widen access among postgraduates. Saying "go away and earn the money and come back in a few years when you are wealthier" simply isn't good enough,” he told Cherwell.

The University vigorously denies this. Pointing to announcements such as last year’s £26m Ertegun donation for graduate humanities study, it stated, “Oxford offers more postgraduate financial support than almost any other UK university, and has been proactive in highlighting this national issue by fundraising for scholarships and lobbying for a national loans scheme. The Vice-Chancellor wrote about the issue in The Times in March 2012.”

St Hugh’s College declined to comment on the case so far.

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