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  1. Politics
10 May 2011

The coalition can’t favour the richest students over the rest

Why not lift the cap on student places altogether?

By George Eaton

The news that rich students (or, more accurately, the children of rich parents) could be allowed to pay for extra places at oversubscribed universities is the sort of story that compels one to check that it’s not 1 April. This year, a record 633,811 people have applied for university but only about 487,000 places are expected to be offered, meaning that at least 146,811 applicants will miss out.

The idea that the richest pupils will be then allowed to buy their way in to the system, while the rest are shut out, seems an almost comic rejection of social justice.

David Willetts, the man responsible for the plan, tells the Guardian: “There are various important issues that need to be addressed around off-quota places, but I start from the view that an increase in the total number of higher education places could aid social mobility.” Yet at a time when the government is planning to cut 10,000 publicly funded places, it’s hard to see how these plans will benefit anyone but the most privileged.

The idea, presumably, is that universities will be able to offer extra places at no additional cost to the taxpayer. The extra students would be charged fees comparable to those levied on international undergraduates (£12,000 for arts subjects, £18,000 for sciences and more than £28,000 for medicine) and would not be eligible for state-subsidised loans.

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Given that the government’s reforms are facing a £960m black hole (higher fees mean higher loans), it’s not hard to see why ministers are keen for those who can afford to pay more to do so. Needless to say, the students would be required to meet the course entry grades.

On the Today programme, Willetts argued that extra places wouldn’t just be available to children from wealthy families: “Imagine, say, there’s a charity that said, ‘We wish to sponsor people to go to university who have got a particular set of problems or come from a particular background.’ If a charity wished to support places, would that be acceptable?” But few charities have the money to fund a significant number of extra places.

We’re likely to get a clearer picture when the government publishes its long-delayed white paper on higher education. But here’s one question that ministers will have to answer: why not lift the cap on places altogether? The vice-chancellor of Birmingham University, Professor David Eastwood, recently argued that such a move would drive fees down (two-thirds of universities are planning to charge the maximum £9,000) and, as a result, would not cost the Treasury more money.

“The key policy imperative is to say that numbers will follow informed student choice,” Eastwood said. “At that point, all institutions have to think in a very different way about their market position, about student demand and about the way legitimate competition will work.”

Without such a reform, one feels, allowing the richest to buy their place will just feel like another kick in the teeth for the poorest.