Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Social mobility out the window as rich kids allowed to buy extra university places

News this morning of plans to allow super wealthy families and their kids e xtra university places is rightly being slammed as a insult to all the good hard working students from less well off backgrounds.

Universities such as Oxford could offer extra places to students who can pay the fees up front rather than taking out state-funded loans, under the governments plans. Photograph: Lonely Planet Images/Alamy
Teenagers from the wealthiest families would be able to pay for extra places at the most competitive universities under government proposals that could allow institutions to charge some British students the same high fees as overseas undergraduates.

Candidates who take up the extra places would not be eligible for publicly funded loans to pay tuition fees or living costs, limiting this option to all but the most privileged households who could pay fees up front.

Under the plans, the extra students may be charged as much as international undergraduates. At the most competitive universities, these students face fees ranging from £12,000 a year for arts subjects to £18,000 for sciences and more than £28,000 for medicine. Applicants would be required to meet the course entry requirements.

The changes would give more students the chance to attend their first choice of university. At present, the government sets a quota of undergraduate places that English universities are allowed to offer each year.

Employers and charities will also be encouraged to sponsor "off-quota" places under the plans to be outlined in a higher education white paper in the summer.

Ministers argue that the creation of extra places will boost social mobility by freeing up more publicly subsidised places for undergraduates from poorer homes.

But the proposals are likely to be criticised as a means for the wealthiest to "buy places" at a time when the government is to cut 10,000 publicly funded places.

The universities minister, David Willetts, told the Guardian: "There are various important issues that need to be addressed around off-quota places, but I start from the view that an increase in the total number of higher education places could aid social mobility.

"There would need to be arrangements to make sure any such system was fair and worked in the interests of students as well as institutions. But it is not clear what the benefit is of the current rules, which, for example, limit the ability of charities or social enterprises to sponsor students.

"We are inviting ideas on the whole concept and we will listen very carefully to all the responses we receive."

The proposal is most likely to be taken up by highly selective institutions, which turn away thousands of qualified candidates a year. Oxford accepted slightly more than 3,000 British and EU undergraduates out of about 17,000 who applied for the current academic year.

That demand is due to intensify as the latest application figures show the number of candidates for this autumn has risen by 2.1% to about 633,000 – another record high.

The places may not be covered by access agreements, under which universities are required to outline how they will improve their proportion of students from state schools and deprived backgrounds.

Under one version of the scheme, universities might operate a "needs-blind" admissions process, which assesses all candidates regardless of their ability to pay, but then offers places off-quota to candidates from the most privileged homes.

The expansion of places will put greater pressure on less popular universities. Ministers have warned that undersubscribed institutions could have government-funded places withdrawn.

In a speech last month, the business secretary, Vince Cable, said: "Institutions could very well find themselves in trouble if students can't see value. In circumstances where places are unfilled, we might withdraw those places, and institutions should not assume they will easily get them back."

This is more likely to happen if more sought-after universities are free to expand in response to student demand.

The government is also keen to encourage more corporate sponsorship of university places. The accountancy firm KPMG has unveiled a plan to pay fees for students at universities including Durham, in a training programme leading to an honours degree in accounting.

These students also fall outside government restrictions on numbers, chiefly because they are on bespoke courses reserved for one firm's employees. They do not need financial support as KPMG covers their fees and pays them a salary.

The current version of the scheme is, in effect, an outsourcing of corporate training, but the range of education on offer could become more diverse in future.

This sounds to me like the first stage of privatising our higher education sector. The fact that business's can buy courses for trainees is just introducing private money into the sector. This smells very suspicious much like the NHS plans by the tories.

How can they have the nerve to say this will encourage social mobility is beyond me. It is distinctly unfair and is attempting to create a usand them situation with the wealthier families paying for a better future for their sons or daughters.

It is fundementally unfair and must be opposed in my view.

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