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.

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