Making the rich pay more is not social mobility

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 11 May 2011 in Diary
These Robin Hood plans over extra university places are a bit rich. Francesca Preece asks: Why are the wealthy paying for the failure of governments past and present to give the poor the same chance in education?

Just when you thought the furore over university fees had disappeared, it rears its ugly head again.

Minister David Willetts is under fire over proposals in his White Paper (out in the summer should you wish to obtain it for some light reading), where extra university places come at a hefty price. The idea is to allow over-subscribed universities the chance to get more students on their books by offering 'off-quota' places.

This new capacity is over and above existing student numbers and solely available to those who can pay – and pay a lot.

The places will be given on the understanding that students can: a) cough up overseas students’ prices (that will be £28k a year for medicine please) and b) get the grades they were meant to get in the first place.

While the government insists the rich can’t just buy their way in, the scheme leaves a funny taste in this graduate’s mouth.

Not because I don’t think that it is wrong that a student with a bit more cash behind them can get a place thanks to their bank balance (I do), but because of the idea that this is social mobility in action.

Those seeking ‘off-quota’ places are still having to get the same grades as everyone else – it’s not as if they’re walking into Oxford with straight Ds. In the small print, students who take up these extra places won’t be eligible for a state-funded loan. Coming up with £12k+ is not necessarily easy, even for those in the black.

It’s the distinction and prejudice I don’t like about all this. The government is promoting a situation where the rich are treated differently from the rest of us. Wealth is excluding people from the education mainstream. Of course this may not harm them in an academic sense, but it will perpetuate the two-tiered system, between private and state schools, into higher education. EVERYONE should be entitled to the same high standard of education and the same opportunities. Equality should be for richer and for poorer.

I am not seeking to excuse the means by which money can be used to facilitate opportunities in education and work. I despised the Conservative auctioneering of an internship a few months back but I also despise the fact that education is a commodity that has to be bought and sold. It is a sad state of affairs that money is often the only answer in giving a child a better education.

In an ideal world there shouldn’t be the need for a private education system. But why should the rich pay the price for the failures of governments past and present, to produce a state school system where children aren’t ready for the world of work at 16? Whether we like it or not, it is not the fault of wealthy families that poorer students have failed to receive a good education. It is too easy to pin the blame on them or punish them for the mistakes of politicians.

Social mobility won’t come from making the rich pay more. Why don’t the universities justify their new prices by ploughing the money they are set to make from their £9k+ annual membership fees into scholarships? If the government is so serious about social mobility, they will realise that it is education which is the key to unlocking a person’s potential. With education and skills a person can walk out into the world of work and self-dependency. Instead of bemoaning the circumstances of the rich why don’t we try to afford the poor the same chances as them.

The hike in student fees wasn’t exactly the answer to this. In a large number of jobs degrees are necessary to get your foot in the door. Yet despite this, the Coalition gave the green light to higher fees. Instead of giving more young adults a university education the government’s doing a great job of turning them away. Irrespective of whether rich kids pay more or not, it doesn’t stop the simple fact that a huge number of students will steer clear of the higher education route because £27,000 in fees after three years is just not feasible. LEA help and student loans only go so far.

That is why I do back one plan in Willett’s white paper – getting businesses and charities to sponsor a student throughout his or her degree. Now that in my eyes is the real saving grace and argument for social mobility in action. It is the one way where everyone will be on the same playing field. The size of your brain will surpass the size of your wallet.

These academic apprenticeships should be applauded and I urge all businesses out there to put a £9,000 donation on a student’s sponsoring form.  It will be an investment for life.

Tags: David Willetts, Social mobility, Tuition fees, University

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