The charmed lives of Oxford & Cambridge

No one really expected Tony Blair to do much with private education, and the inquiry into who gets charitable status and why – led by the performance and innovation unit in the Cabinet Office – ruled out any major change in the rules that allow Eton, Harrow and the rest to claim tax advantages.

The PIU report looks likely to require private schools ‘do more’ for the community to qualify as charities, but that may be no more than letting local teams use their football fields on Saturday morning.

But for King’s, Christ’s and Balliol the PIU investigation may be more serious since it coincides with a major rethink on student finance and the future of higher education.

The PIU was shocked to discover that Oxbridge colleges are exempt from filing accounts with the Charity Commission. Instead colleges’ accounts are rendered inside the labyrinth of Oxford and Cambridge University governance, a weird and wonderful world of ‘graces’, regents and committees making it difficult to work out real figures such as the actual cost of college teaching.

In Cambridge college accounts are audited by professional firms who do not worry about the relationship entertainment spending and educational attainment.Some voices close to the PM are urging radical action, including the abolition of charitable status and the absorption of colleges into the accounting entity of the university.

This would create a fuss which education secretary Estelle Morris may see as a distraction from her attempts to improve performance and expand higher education enrolment. Oxbridge dons are well-connected and while they would be unlikely to march down Whitehall they would make their influence felt in high places. Watch this space, however, as some of the strongest advocates of college financial reform can be found running Oxbridge universities.

  • David Walker writes for The Guardian

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