Widening participation for the well-off? Willetts’ new proposal for higher education
The Minister for Higher Education, David Willetts, has frequently seemed to be of two minds, now he seems to be out of both of them. No sooner has a Warwick University study demonstrated that the university application system penalises students from poor and ethnic minority backgrounds, than he seeks a way of advantaging students from wealthy backgrounds.
His new proposal is that such students may exempt themselves from the new system of student loans for fees, by paying fees up front at the higher overseas fee rate. He suggests that this will improve social mobility by increasing the number of places available to less wealthy students through the publicly funded system of student support and application process.
Like overseas students, they would also be exempted from the data that will be used by OFFA to assess widening participation at Universities. At a stroke, Mr Willetts proposes to make some Universities more elitist, while rigging the data to show that they are achieving targets for social mobility. It has frequently seemed as if the rich are from another country to the rest of the population, now they will be treated as if they literally are.
But this really shows what a mess the Government’s policies for higher education are in. We began with a Browne Review that recommended no cap on fees (and a system where fees set above £9000 would contribute to a national scholarship fund), the Government then established a cap at £9000 and declared its expectation that increased competition would mean that most fees would be set at £6000. It soon became very evident that most institutions would charge closer to £9000, rendering the cost to the publicly-funded student support system much higher than anticipated at the start of the process (undermining any claimed savings and rescuing the Government from embarrassment only by an accounting device that took the cost in terms of the current fiscal deficit ‘off the books’). Now, the proposal is to remove the higher fee cap for some students, with the additional money all recouped by the universities that can charge such higher fees.
From the start of the process, the Campaign for the Public University has argued that the intention of a small group of Vice-Chancellors, and the members of the Browne Review team, has been to create a fee regime in which they could rise to the level currently charged to overseas students. On the one hand, with the removal of the HEFCE teaching grant from most social science and humanities subjects, it could be argued that there is no basis for a difference in fees charged between home and overseas students. Indeed, David Cameron intimated as much in a speech in Beijing, as we reported earlier. On the other hand, it is clear that his intention was not to prevent universities from exploiting overseas students, but to find a way of charging everyone what the market can bear. Some vice-chancellors – primarily, but not exclusively, at Russell Group universities – think the market will bear very much higher fees.
It is the privatisation of universities that is being sought, not the protection of the public value of higher education, including its role in promoting social mobility. This is another step in that direction. Perhaps the minister is not muddled, only mendacious.