Political Promise

Government Continues Farcical Stance on Tuition Fees

In Jonny Roberts on May 21, 2011 at 3:47 pm

Willetts idea for extra university places is certainly flawed but its the right who should be worried, says Jonny Roberts.

David Willetts, the Universities Minister, has managed to mirror his boss (Vince Cable) by looking rather stupid this past week, much less the ‘two brains’ moniker which has been applied to him previously and more ‘no brains’. He has allowed himself to be framed by the press as the man who wants to give university places out to the rich and wealthy whilst restricting the places for the squeezed middle. Disaster.

I feel rather strang, being a Labour man through and through, but I write in the University minister’s defence – this isn’t what Willetts was actually proposing. Willetts’ actual proposal is not to hock additional ‘off-quota’ university places off to the highest bidder. Instead Willetts proposed to allow charities and businesses to buy students extra places at universities for the cost of an international student place (i.e. between £12,000-£28,000 depending on the institution).

The idea is that charities such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation could buy additional spots at Durham and Bath for bright pupils from poor backgrounds who didn’t make the cut, likewise businesses like Sainsbury’s might pay for a bright young customer service assistant to attend a business school to learn HR or management. This isn’t the end of the world, international fees are extortionate yet they to subsidise other UK or EU places. The trouble with this policy is not just that Willetts has failed to explain it properly but also that actually charities would be much better off investing their cash in programmes to raise aspiration amongst bright but socially disadvantaged children, supporting them through their school studies and then the university admissions system – for £28,000 they could help many more pupils this way for the price of one under Willetts proposal.

Willetts also seems to have completely forgotten every word he hath spoken these past 6 months since the fury over the introduction of £9,000 fees. The Government has repeatedly insisted that its new and improved focus on the Fair Access agenda will mean universities giving their places, first and foremost, to pupils who make the grade but come from poorer backgrounds, indeed Nick Clegg has suggested pupils with slightly below par grades be accepted in recognition of their achievement within a poorer-performing school setting. If the Government’s word on Fair Access is worth anything then no charity should ever have to buy places for disadvantaged pupils.

So if charities aren’t supporting poor pupils, who would they be helping? This is where the fury of the left may be misguided. As I say, under the Fair Access Agreements universities will focus their offers in this order:

1)      Those from the poorest backgrounds who have the grades

2)      Those from the poorest backgrounds who don’t quite have the grades but show potential

3)      Those from low-to-middle income families with the grades

4)      Those from middle income families with the grades

5)      Those from upper middle class families with the grades

Now we know £9,000 is pretty much the average fee for a university education post-2012 since the Government so catastrophically failed to remember basic economics i.e. huge demand for places, so much so that most universities are over subscribed each year + universities free to charge up to £9,000 for their ‘product’ = of course, universities charging the maximum – especially as their block grant from Government has been slashed. So Government has to cut university places, expect this to happen gradually, year-on-year for the next four years. Look back at the list above, the first places to go will be those for upper-middle class students. This is where the fury should come not from the left but from the right – the staunch Tory, privately educated right.

If I am right university will be very much for the poorest, providing Government can get the message across that they probably won’t pay anywhere near £9,000 a year due to their parent’s low income. It will also be for the majority, albeit with a huge debt as the price, but it will not be for the rich…not unless they pay much more.

Parents who privately educate their children, for £12,000-£15,000 a year then rub their hands with glee as they only pay £9,000 a year (up front of course so that their children earn more after tax than the rest and incur no interest), for their child’s university education are the focus of this policy. Now, finding that their child hasn’t got a place at university, after all that expensive private education, because they’ve all been taken by those children who got there via the dreaded state system, these parents will now be asked to fork out international student rates to get their child a place.

The charities which will be paying for these £28,000 Oxbridge places will therefore not be the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, looking out for poor students, but instead Rotary Clubs and Conservative Associations looking after the sons and daughters of their well-off members or even private schools themselves – which are of course registered charities.

Maybe Willetts is ‘two-brains’ after all? Using his genius to play dumb, rally the left against a policy he never intended to help the rich so as to engender the support of the right. Actively encouraging Telegraph readers to write off protestations as ‘the moans of Guardian-readers from Primrose Hill’ to cover the truth – that this policy is an out right attack on the most privileged 7.4% of the country whose parents pay for their school education.

There are still things for the left to worry about, tuition fees are still obviously £9,000 a year and whilst I suggest the squeeze on university places will effect only the wealthy I am being rather disingenuous. 300,000 missed out on university places last year, this policy would shift thousands of these missed places round – giving them to those from state schools rather than the more well-off, but still many, too many qualified students from average, middle-class homes will be missing out on university – this is set to get worse and the only realistic solutions would seem to me to be building around 10-12 new large universities or making most existing university classes much larger as they are in Spanish or American Higher Education. The left should focus on solving the problem of delivering affordable Higher Education to the masses who now demand it and leave the right to worry about David Willetts and Vince Cable’s latest idea for fixing the tuition fee debacle they got themselves into.

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