In 1907, writer and Oxford graduate Lionel Portman began his novel The Progress of Hugh Rendal: A 'Varsity Story with an impassioned attack on the university system of fees and credit. “An unrighteous anomaly it seems that on entering Oxford University the first thing you have to do is to pay money,” Portman protests,
Once entered, apparently, you may owe it to the limit of your taste. The shops smile “Credit;” the streets sing of it, the breezes whisper “Put it down”; the whole spirit of the place assumes it as a matter of course; and that so sweet a symphony should begin on so harsh a chord appears an outrage unpardonable. But so in the wisdom of most colleges it is ordained. Thirty pounds, “caution money,” must be paid to the Bursar before he will write your name in his book of the Elect. And till this is paid, be your other debts what they may, you cannot owe to College or University. (1)
Upon enrolling in Oxford, the novel's earnest freshman hero Hugh is immediately subjected to a “baptism of debt,” and, by the end of his first year, he agonizes over the £58 in bills he owes to his grocer and other merchants (2, 102). Portman suggests that young undergraduates from families of modest means were ill-equipped to negotiate the consumer temptations that characterized the university experience and often met with painful – even disastrous – financial consequences. “What undergraduate,” the novelist asks his readers, “finding himself for the first time in the sublime position of having unlimited credit if very limited cash gives a thought to that distant but inevitable sunset, when he is informed that ‘The accounts of Mr. ––– have been placed in our hands for collection,’ etc., etc.?” (30).