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10 May 2011

Willetts backs down on places for rich students

Universities minister say that students will not be able to “buy their way in to university”.

By George Eaton

A government that is remarkably fond of U-turns has just executed one of its fastest yet. Appearing in the Commons following an emergency question tabled by Labour, David Willetts has just said that “there is no question that students will be able to buy their way in to university”.

A press release from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills adds: “Access to a university must be based on ability to learn, not ability to pay. We have been discussing the idea of charitable donors and employers endowing additional places on a needs-blind basis which will be subject for consultation in the higher education white paper.”

As I reported this morning, it had been suggested that rich students (or, more accurately, the children of rich parents) could be allowed to pay for extra places at oversubscribed universities. When he appeared on the Today programme this morning, Willetts refused to deny that this was the case.

Given that the coalition plans to cut the number of publicly funded student places by 10,000, it is hardly surprising that the proposal was derided. Allowing the rich to buy their way in to the system while the rest are shut out offends basic principles of fairness.

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Why a policy that would always prove politically toxic was allowed to leak remains a mystery. But Willetts has demonstrated his political naivety again. Last month he was caught out when he misleadingly claimed that feminism was to blame for the decline in social mobility (an argument I rebutted at the time).

Meanwhile, his belief that universities would charge £9,000 only in “exceptional circumstances” has been exposed as hopelessly naive – two-thirds now intend to charge full whack. As the errors mount, it’s not surprising that some are suggesting that the coalition’s philosopher king needs to go back to school.