Think Again: Willetts’ proposal on higher education

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Reaction to David Willetts’ ideas for Higher Education access and funding, aired on the Today programme last week, has been largely along the lines of Nick Robinson’s question to the Prime Minister: “Why should the rich be able to buy their own places?” If the journalist in question had actually listened to his interview on the Today programme, one would find this a non-sequitur of such blinding illogicality that it borders on the embarrassing. As a result, any decent debate around the substance of his ideas has been completely and conclusively shut down.

Of course, the answer to such a question is legitimate indignation. However, such a proposal, of individuals funding extra places for themselves at top universities, was never in question. The idea centers around the issue of students being admitted to British Universities ‘off-quota’ – that is, in addition to the quota of government funded places at each institution.  If you look at the system we already have, this is not a new idea. Masses of non-EU students are admitted off-quota. Visiting and exchange students are not subject to the same entry procedures. Labour-approved schemes include KPMG’s sponsorship of additional places at Durham and Exeter. If the principle is apparently so inviolable, then why has it already been contravened?

What Willetts actually suggested was quite simple. Predicated on the assumption that there are more qualified and able people who wish to go to university than there are places, his question was: “How do we get them into the system when public funding is limited?” His answer was naturally “private funding”, a broad church of which one tiny facet is wealthy individuals, a category which he definitively precluded from any proposals. To construe it as such requires rank ignorance, and to claim that widening university participation inhibits social mobility is willfully unfair. Charities, philanthropic foundations, and certain companies were not precluded – this is what the debate should be about.

Furthermore, it is commonplace to say that the UCAS selection process has a whiff of the arbitrary about it, which is only partially mitigated at Oxbridge by its more rigorous interview procedure. Both practically and on paper, there is so little difference between potential candidates at many universities, that the idea of a flood of ‘dumb kids with rich parents’ overrunning the Rad Cam (to a greater extent than already happens) seems laughable. As he said so himself, the crucial feature of any off-quota admissions would have to be that candidates meet the “same, high academic standards”.

If British universities are to maintain and advance their world standing, then there is no doubt that expansion is needed. We would be fools to think that funding doesn’t form the bedrock of academic success. Look at the Norrington table, and then compare it to the rank of college endowment income, and you will find the definition of ‘strong positive correlation’. Extrapolate this world-wide: the ten best world universities have the ten highest endowments, and it is not far from being in order, allowing for yearly fluctuations.

For most of us, the preferred method would be direct government investment, but unfortunately that battle seems already to have been lost. In the absence of this, Willetts’ ideas could allow both university expansion and, provided the details are engineered correctly, a greater number of places which could and should be targeted at the disadvantaged. Of course the devil lies in the detail, and as Willetts repeatedly made abundantly clear on multiple occasions, any legislation world have to conclusively meet criteria that “absolutely pass muster in improving social mobility”. Concrete proposals would, of course, need rigorous scrutiny.

However, there is a case to be made. Properly implemented, such ideas could fund better Access schemes, make universities bigger, richer and more competitive, and allow a world-class education to be available to more people. This can’t be a bad thing.

James Cross