Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Will students be able to buy their way onto courses?

This debate is now red hot in the UK where higher education funding has been the subject of radical reforms, details here. An excerpt:

"[. . .] Prime Minister David Cameron has rejected suggestions the government is considering allowing wealthy students to pay for extra university places. "There is no question of people being able to buy their way into university," Mr Cameron told the BBC. Universities Minister David Willetts said extra places could be funded by businesses or charities and not wealthy individuals.

But Labour's John Denham accused the government of a "humiliating u-turn". Mr Willetts had to face questions in the House of Commons over proposals to create extra university places which would not depend upon public funding.

[. . .] In angry exchanges, the minister told MPs that he was considering plans to make it easier for employers and charities to fund additional places - but "rich individuals should not be able to buy their way into universities".
Shadow Business Secretary John Denham warned the plans would "corrupt university admissions with a two-tier system" and said that middle-income families would face "agonising pressure to take on huge private debts" to afford a university place for their children. [. . .]"

Non-UK readers may not see the concern so I should spell it out. University fees (for UK and EU students to study in the UK) are a piece of contemporary history. Until the late 1990s, there were no such fees. While there were far fewer student places, students paid no tuition and often received a maintenance grant (note: a "grant" and not a "loan"). Fees were introduced to help fund the expansion of universities, but fees were kept small to about £1,000. Fees have continued to increase since and are now set at about £3,200.

The problems are that the fees are set to treble to £9,000 for most courses at most universities (with relatively few exceptions). This is not a grant, but a loan that students will have to pay back once they graduate. The free maintenance grants have largely disappeared. This is coupled with a 80% cut in the teaching grant to universities: this includes a 100% cut in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Thus, many fear the new fees will only help plug new funding gaps.

Throughout, there has always been some appeal -- however notional -- to a sense of fairness. Students entered university not because they were wealthy (even if many were), but because their entrance had merit. All universities actively engage in "widening participation" as well.

This new policy undercuts in a more serious way claims to fairness. Extra places would not be merited by students who deserved their place, but on account of a business or charity having deep pockets. Moreover, which charities will have the cash to spend on fully funding university places? Until we have some evidence (anyone seen it?), it does not seem unreasonable to presume that perhaps it will be businesses alone who might be able to fund such places. Nick Clegg argued pre-election argued it shouldn't be who you know that leads to your early job experience and building careers. Well, this new opportunity might help precisely those who know someone at a business interested in funding places. (Possible tax write-offs as well..?)

This will surely infuriate Liberal Democrats in the coalition government. It will be interesting to see whether this is the "own goal" it appears.

Plus, it is possible --- genuinely possible --- that higher education policy may end this government. The policy has been that bad thus far. Time will tell.

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