The rich should not be allowed to buy their way into the best universities

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, warns against David Willetts's plans to allow the rich to buy their way into the best universities.

Sally Hunt is the general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU)

Today’s news that wealthy students may be allowed to buy places at university is further proof that the government’s university funding policy is in complete disarray. Not content with getting their sums wrong on tuition fee levels, the coalition is now being accused of offering degrees for sale to balance the books.

The line from ministers this morning was that the plans would free up publicly-funded places for poorer students, but I simply do not buy it. Far from increasing social mobility, it is hard to see how this is anything other than entrenching privilege for the wealthy.

If these proposals go ahead we risk turning the clock back to a time when breeding rather than brains were required to get on in life.

If Anna, Bob and Clare all apply for a certain course and Anna is successful, Bob and Clare may then be able to reapply and pay a vastly increased fee. That may be good news for our putative student Bob as he comes from a very wealthy family happy to pay the fees – a move that will also spare him from a lifetime of student debt on higher interest rates.

From what ministers were saying this morning, Clare might still get lucky if a charity is prepared to pay for her or she can find a business sponsor to stump up the bigger fees. However, Clare would probably not be the only person to think that Bob had something of an unfair advantage.

The policy would be particularly embarrassing for Liberal Democrats as all their MPs pledged to vote, and campaign, against higher fees. Increasing fees to ensure wealthy students have access to our most prestigious universities goes even further than the original breaking of the pledge and sends a quite extraordinary message to students from less wealthy backgrounds.

At a time when publicly-funded places are being cut, the government needs to do more than just float unfair and ill-thought through policy ideas that would allow access to our most prestigious universities to be based on someone’s ability to pay rather than their academic ability.

The proposals also risk creating a two-tier system within the university sector, as wealthier students would almost certainly opt to buy places at our most sought after institutions. This may be good news for the likes of Cambridge and Oxford, but it would leave other universities, especially those with good track records of widening participation, even further in their financial slipstream.

If these proposals represent the level of thinking that is going into the forthcoming higher education white paper then we really are in trouble.

16 Responses to “The rich should not be allowed to buy their way into the best universities”

  1. Sharon Pavey

    RT @leftfootfwd: The rich should not be allowed to buy their way into the best universities: //bit.ly/jcAOkL writes @UCU's Sally Hunt

  2. Christine Ramsbottom

    RT @leftfootfwd: The rich should not be allowed to buy their way into the best universities: //bit.ly/jcAOkL writes @ucu's Sally Hunt

  3. neil bird

    RT @leftfootfwd: The rich should not be allowed to buy their way into the best universities: //bit.ly/jcAOkL writes @UCU's Sally Hunt

  4. Double.Karma

    RT @leftfootfwd: The rich should not be allowed to buy their way into the best universities: //bit.ly/jcAOkL writes @UCU's Sally Hunt

  5. SWAG LIFE MAGAZINE

    The rich should not be allowed to buy their way into the best universities: Today's news that wealthy students m… //bit.ly/kOqpn9

  6. cim

    Except, of course, that this is exactly the arrangement that already exists for international undergraduate students. Unregulated numbers; unregulated fees. There has not been a massive swing with the “top universities” turning away publicly-funded home students in favour of rich international students – they’ve just taken both (and turned away plenty of international applicants too, for that matter)

    Bob and Clare will be in competition with the many international students already coming to the UK to study. If they didn’t get a place the first time round, the chances of them getting a place the second time round are pretty slim. (Of course, Bob – and Clare if she gets funding – could use that pile of money to go to any other university outside the UK anyway, whether or not this proposal passes)

    Bob’s real advantage is that his family wealth will buy him fancy private schooling, interview coaching, private tuition, and participation in extra-curricular activities for a great UCAS personal statement. And there’s not much tinkering with education policy can do about that.

  7. StephenHenderson

    cim: The number of international undergraduate students IS regulated because they have to go through the same selection process as the national students– they pay more but cannot simply buy a place with inferior qualifications or experience.
    However postgraduate is a different matter. Here international students can buy their way in with inferior qualifications and many courses would not run if it were not for the international student cash. I would suggest it would be bad for undergraduate courses to follow this model.

  8. cim

    StephenHenderson: But I’m not sure that’s what’s being suggested here, is it? International undergraduate places are off-quota but through UCAS. I’ve not seen any suggestion in the news articles that these private places would be non-UCAS admissions. (Nor can I imagine universities wanting to put up with that inconvenience for the sake of a few extra students)

  9. RedfishUK

    It’s OK “pea brain” Willets has just remembered that he didn’t really mean what he said yesterday

  10. StephenHenderson

    cim: I think Non UCAS admission was precisely what was suggested by Willetts.
    Following negative reaction to his appearance on Today it seems to have been abandoned by lunchtime. Oh and this story did not just happen this morning. The original idea was leaked to the THES a few days ago..and preceded by a speech that Willetts gave last month

    //www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=416064&c=1

  11. Ed's Talking Balls

    I don’t agree with many articles here, but if what I’ve heard about this policy so far is true, then this piece is right to criticise Willetts’ antics.

    University entry should be about academic ability. Simple. No ifs, no buts.

  12. US Uncut - Oklahoma

    RT @leftfootfwd: The rich should not be allowed to buy their way into the best universities: //bit.ly/jcAOkL writes @UCU's Sally Hunt

  13. SWAG LIFE MAGAZINE

    The rich should not be allowed to buy their way into the best …: Today's news that wealthy students may be all… //bit.ly/l1D0g6

  14. Stephen W

    The point is though that university admission is not about academic ability AT THE MOMENT!. It is about how many university places the government is willing to fund.

  15. mr. Sensible

    The Coalition’s higher education policy is in a total state.

  16. Robert Bennett

    …and we all know that it will overwhelmingly be those lucky few who have managed to secure work experience with the companies and charities that will secure funding, you know, the ones that go on to get internships, the kids of next door neighbours, deserving people like that. Hooray!

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