Image: Oxford University
David Silverman  /  Getty Images file
Oxford University's historic campus includes the Radcliffe Camera, an 18th-century building housing reading rooms of the Bodleian Library.
updated 10/2/2008 12:49:52 PM ET 2008-10-02T16:49:52

Oxford University must be allowed to hike tuition fees if it is to compete with its American counterparts, the institution's chancellor said.

Chris Patten told an educators conference it was "intolerable" the government barred Oxford and other universities from charging students more than about 3,000 pounds ($5,300) a year for their schooling. He noted top British private primary and secondary schools charge much more.

"Can there be a middle class objection to higher fees?" Patten said Tuesday, according to a copy of his speech posted to Oxford's Web site.

Oxford shares the top of the British academic pyramid with Cambridge — but the endowment commanded by the English-speaking world's oldest university is small compared to Ivy League heavyweights in America.

The disparity is mirrored in the amount U.S. students pay for education. Harvard's tuition is $32,557 for the current academic year, the university's Web site says. The average annual tuition at a four-year American private college was $23,712 last year, according to the College Board.

Patten said the extra fees translate into extra resources for U.S. rivals, leading to a disparity in spending that is weakening the standing of British universities. Many postgraduate positions in Britain are underfunded, which puts them "at a significant disadvantage in comparison with our American peers," he said.

Patten did not say how much tuition should go up. But the left-leaning Labour Party government is resisting any increase, feeling that would hurt its campaign to boost the number of low-income students at the country's top universities.

Opponents of higher fees argue that unlike expensive U.S. universities, Britain's elite institutions receive significant public funding. Oxford and Cambridge got a combined $620 million in taxpayer money for 2008-09, according to the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

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