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The rich buying places at university? They already do, says Laurie Penny

David Willetts's proposal merely formalises the process of purchasing access that already exists.

Higher-education policy is where you can see the trick happening: the brazenness of Tory retrenchment policies in the field of social mobility being phrased as an inevitability, when they are surgically ideological. The creation of the funding deficit in British higher education was a calculated decision by this government, as the £4bn saving generated could have been recouped many times over by pursuing corporate tax avoidance, or imposing a small levy on financial transactions. Our flatlining economy has benefited not one jot from the government's determination to farm 80 per cent of university teaching costs out to the private sector and triple student fees.

Instead, vice chancellors and their industry partners are being encouraged to remodel our university system into a profit playground funded by the financial aristocracy for the quasi-exclusive enjoyment of its children.The strategy is Machiavellian in its opportunism, Trojan in its deafness to criticism. The academy is being rebuilt to reward enterprise rather than enquiry, offering its services at cost not to the most able, but to those most able to pay.

This week, the Universities Minister, David Willetts, has announced another twist. At the most competitive universities, wealthy failed applicants who would otherwise have been turned away will be given the chance to buy their way in with yearly fees of £28,000. By "the most competitive universities," Willetts means -- everyone means -- Oxford and Cambridge. Rich underacheivers will now be able to buy places at Oxford and Cambridge, along with a few other top Russell Group institutions that are a shoo-in for jobs in finance, research, business, science, politics, media and the creative industries. So much for meritocracy.

At the same time, at London Metropolitan University -- a college with more black students than the entire Russell Group put together (21 Oxbridge colleges admitted none in 2009) and an essential route out of poverty for thousands of inner London teenagers -- 70 per cent of courses are being cut. Last night, London Met students who occupied part of the university in protest at this funding decision were forcibly evicted by police and bailiffs. The writing is on the wall for social mobility in this country.

The move to let rich students buy their way into Oxbridge has been condemned across the board, including by senior Liberal Democrats charging madly at the last lifeboats off the sinking ship of centre-right equivocation. David Willetts doesn't give a damn. As I write, he is on the radio continuing to fabricate reasons why these changes are, in fact, "progressive". The move, many naysayers claim, is entirely against the spirit of education in Britain. But is it?

Let's face facts: the rich have been buying their children places at top universities for decades. They do this by buying into the private school system, paying thousands to send Leo and Jemima to feeder colleges that pride themselves on Oxbridge entrance, on making sure everyone passes the exams, on buffing even the dullest sixth-former to parade gloss for Oxbridge interviews.

In my final year at a British private school, over 30 kids were handheld through the application process for Oxford or Cambridge, whereas in most state schools a maximum of one or two begin the gruelling process, usually without the considerable staff support that we enjoyed.

Of those 30, about half were successful, and at least four or five of those were -- excuse my French -- thick as congealed slurry on the bridle path. They were dull, unimaginative posh kids who had no real interest in learning , who were just good at passing exams with the right training. What they had was the confidence to shine at interviews, and most importantly, the right kind of swagger to fit in. They had grown up being told they belonged at Oxford or Cambridge. As a consequence, they were deemed Oxbridge material, whereas thousands of state school pupils were not.

Of course, for every posh dunce who makes it into Oxford or Cambridge, there's a successful state school applicant who worked their butt off because they wanted to study the subject of their dreams at one of the world's top universities. Nonetheless, merit is already far from the only criterion for entry into Oxbridge.

In that sense, Willetts's "second bite of the cherry" strategy is not a new idea: it merely formalises the process of purchasing access to top institutions for the offspring of wealthy parents, many of whom might identify a saving: £84,000 for three years at Oxford is peanuts compared to £248,850 for five years at Eton. Like an unprofitable social-studies degree, social mobility in Britain has just been given formal notice of discontinuation, but the writing has been on the wall for many years.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.