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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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”