Tuesday, Mar 26, 2002
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By Hasan Suroor
LONDON, MARCH 25. In a scandal that will find resonance in India, the high-minded Oxford University has been accused of "selling'' admissions for hard cash after two senior staff members of a premier college were secretly taped agreeing to offer a place to a fictitious wealthy banker for a £300,000 donation.
The "banker'' was, in fact, an undercover Sunday Times reporter who had been tipped off by a businessman claiming that an unnamed Oxford college had tried to solicit a large donation. His investigations led him to Pembroke College, one of Oxford's oldest institutions, pretending to be an American banker who desperately wanted his son to read at Oxford but doubted if he could make it on merit alone. Could a place be found if he gave a large donation, say £300,000 ?
He discussed this with the Rev Dr. John Platt, a senior fellow, and Mary-Jane Hilton, chief fund-raiser for the college, and both were more than willing to oblige.
A place on a law course could be arranged but it would have be all very hush-hush, and it would be better if the donation was made to appear to come through a trust so as to avoid a direct link. "Well, you can pay it through your name. But I just thought it would be so much easier if your name was never mentioned,'' Ms. Hilton told the "banker''.
There was a long conversation on actual details _ at what stage his "son'' would be helped and how. It was also made clear that he would be expected to do well once he got into the college. The reason, they gave for the "fix'', was that the college needed money, being one of the most cash-strapped places in Oxford.
Dr. Platt told him repeatedly to keep it under wraps. "If this story goes out, we'd all be blown away,'' he was warned. But the story did get out as a front-page Sunday Times splash sensationally headlined: "Revealed: Degrees for Sale at Oxford College''. And there was hell to pay for the two Pembroke academics. Both have since been forced to resign, the university has launched an investigation and there have been calls for a review of higher education funding which in recent years has been reduced significantly resulting in financial pressures on the less-affluent colleges. The incident has embarrassed the university which only a few months ago turned down the son of a fund-raiser, boasting that at Oxford, merit alone counts. More famously, it rejected a comprehensive school applicant, Sarah Spencer, who then went on to get a place at Harvard. If she had a little cash, it might have helped.
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