Amidst the chaos of a failing university funding scheme “in free-fall” before it has even come into effect, the government has made a controversial and hugely criticised attempt to wrestle UK universities back onto the right track. Universities Minister David Willetts heads a coalition desperately scrambling to pull the shreds of their failing scheme about themselves, as the vast majority of English universities have elected to charge the maximum figure of £9000 tuition fees, making a mockery of the government calculations of a £7500 average figure.
In what has been interpreted as a desperate and reckless move under enormous pressure to rectify the tuition fees debacle, Willetts has announced that the government are considering methods of creating extra university places outside the set ‘quota’ of public funding. Ostensibly, he claims the government is keen to explore methods of increasing the total number of university places available by allowing businesses and charities to sponsor “off-quota” places through schemes similar to that already outlined by employer KMPG.
Willetts says that the creation of these extra places would free up public funding, thus allowing more students from lower income backgrounds the opportunity to attend university. But there has been an instant and overwhelming backlash to the plans by campaigners, students and academic institutions alike. They fear that this approval of “off-quota” places free from public funding opens an elitist and unfair avenue of opportunity for students whose parents are rich enough to pay for places at top UK universities. Chairman of the Sutton Trust Peter Lampl claimed the scheme would “deal a serious blow to social mobility, allowing the better-off to buy advantage in the university system”, whilst student union leaders immediately slammed the plans as “manifestly unfair and elitist”.
Protesters have been quick to draw parallels with the old higher education system and its university: polytechnic divide; where richer students were able to pay for a better degree at an academically superior institution. UCU lecturers’ union leader Sally Hunt warned that the government risks “turning the clock back to a time when breeding rather than brains was required to get on in life”, whilst Cambridge Union President Rahul Mansigani protested “it simply cannot be the case that Daddy’s money can buy you a place at this university”.
Making a complete mockery of the protest slogan “education not for sale”, this latest government gambit follows a long trail of poorly thought out and quickly executed plans and amendments within a scheme already revealing gaping holes and inconsistencies. David Barclay, Oxford University Student Union President, summed up the views of protesters and public alike when he declared the move simply indicated “total desperation from a government whose universities policy is in free-fall”.