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David Willetts is half-right about off-quota university places

Everyone seems to have agreed today that the policy option being considered by the government of allowing rich students to buy places at universities they didn’t win via the normal admissions process is bonkers. I, on the other hand, think he is right. Or, to be more precise, half right.

Lets recap on events to that we can distinguish reality from spin. The story was broken by the Times Higher a week ago to general bemusement. In this story, the government was considering a fairly technical revision to arcane regulations, “quota-free recruitment of self-funding UK students“, in which the rich kids angle was buried several paragraphs in.

Then the Guardian got to work. Substantively, there’s not much new in its story today. But there’s a big splash, huge spin, few its readers will know that its so-called “exclusive” is anything but, and the timing – on the morning of the BIS select committee hearings – is brilliant. Upshot – the story becomes “stupid rich kids will be able to buy their way into top unis” and ends up as the top item on the Radio 4 news at 8am.

Every story, no matter how bad, eventually runs out of steam. But for the Coalition, tuition fees is the story that just wont die. Ministers must feel they are being stalked by an unkillable zombie. Some time round about February, the tuition fees narrative in the media moved on from Lib Dem betrayal to government incompetence. By 9am this morning, the off-quota story was threatening to re-animate the narrative yet again, this time as one of the government supporting the priviliged against the talented. With the Cabinet stuffed with Old Etonians, nothing could be more toxic (as the Guardian knows, of course).

Willetts went of the Today programme but failed to stem the tide. Still no one could understand how letting rich kids buy their way into top unis could aid social mobility. The condemnation flowed in, predictably from the left but also from the right. For example, the chief political commentator at the Daily Express, Patrick OFlynn, tweeted, “As anyone who saw Made In Chelsea last night will know, grave danger for any party seen to be further helping the ultra privileged.”

At the select committee, Bahram Bekhradnia, who heads the independent Higher Education Policy Institute, treated the idea with scorn.

Then Willetts department put out a statement to try and quash the story without dumping the option. This says:

“We will only consider allowing off-quota places where it contributes to the coalition commitment to improve social mobility and increase fair access.

“There is no question of wealthy students being able to buy a place at university. 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 subject for consultation in the higher education white paper”.

That still wasnt good enough and Number 10 obliged Willetts to rule the policy option out for individual rich students. Chalk one up to the Guardian. It has just bounced the government out of a significant HE policy option.

And its not over yet. At 3.30, Labours spokesman on higher education, John Denham has been given permission by the Speaker to ask an emergency question on the subject. Watch the news tonight for more. It all looks out of control, and for the first time in the fees saga, bad for Willetts personally.

So much for the political dog fight that has shaped the story in our minds. What of the policy substance?

The policy option of off-quota places that Willetts tryed and failed to hang on to today is, I suspect, soundly motivated, but the actual policy itself is terrible.

The penny seems to have dropped at BIS that rich kids at top unis could (and would in a free market) pay more. Theres maybe £1 billion in income that is being lost to unis this way because of the cap at £9k. So the idea of getting hold of this income and using it to support kids from poor families through uni could be socially progressive. This is the bit I think Willetts has got right.

There is a simple way of making this happen, as I argued back in December. Remove the cap on tuition fees. Let Oxford and Cambridge, for example, charge £25,000 a year and implement a levy that re-routes most of that money back to students from poor families. The consequence would be that these poor students would pay less to go to uni than they will under the current plans.

In other words, the policy of a cap at £9k provides a valuable subsidy to only one group, the overwhelmingly rich and privately-educated students who dominate our top universities. And, done right, unlimited tuition fees can indeed be a socially progressive policy.

But that is not what Willetts was considering. For political reasons, the £9k cap is unmovable in this Parliament. Hence the policy option discussed today by Willetts in which kids from rich families would have been able to buy a place a top uni that they failed to win in open competition.

This policy option could bring in some additional income for universities. But it has a huge defect that the market-based approach doesnt – it undermines the principle that universities admit the most talented students they can find. Take that away and the idea of universities as enablers of meritocracy disappears. Instead they simply become, like private schools, very clever bastions of privilige. That is not only unattractive, it is politically toxic for the Coalition.

On the Today programme, Willetts offered two defences of the policy option. First, that any students admitted this way would have to have the same grades as those that didnt. Second that this kind of thing already happens with students sponsored by employers. Neither is convincing.

First, getting the grades is not enough. On that basis, Oxbridge would be taking many times as many students as it does now. Its a competition in which grades play a part, but only a part.

Second, what is meritocratic about KPMG and co buying places for their chosen ones from top unis? This is an obscure variation to the general scheme of things and the fact that it has existed in the past does not mean the principle is sound. If this kind of thing is to become much more general, then the basic rights and wrongs will need to be re-examined.

To sum up, getting kids from rich families to pay the true market rate for degrees at top unis could provide substantial additional income for universities which, if handled correctly, could fund some truly progressive measures. But Willetts now-dead wheeze for doing this is fatally flawed by the need to arrange tuition fees policy for the convenience of the Coalitions internal politics.

Or: the governments policy on tuition fees is already a horrible mess; this would just have made the mess bigger.

PS I posted earlier today about the threat off-quota places could pose for BPP and private universities. Carl Lygo, the BPP chief executive, has been in touch to say hes untroubled by the idea. Most of their business is postgraduate, he points out. In undergraduates, “other opportunities would arise, possibly in partnership”.

Updated at 16:20 to reflect the definitive death of the rich kids policy option.