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David Willetts has a history of putting forward ideas that would later be completely scrapped. Before the Browne review was published, he was one of the supporters of the ill-fated graduate tax. Since then, higher education has been plagued with one issue after another: A raise in tuition fees to between £6000 to £9000 per year, with the insistence that the price of £9000 would be reserved for exceptional circumstances.
Along with other higher education reforms, the idea of students being able to pay for extra places on their course was put forward. Normally, I can attempt to see a good point in most policy proposals, but this has no redeeming qualities. Were it adopted, it would mean students from rich backgrounds who don’t quite make the grades could pay upfront costs in order to create new places on their courses, allowing them to essentially buy themselves into university.
Who on earth could think this is a good idea? The education system is already biased, with learning opportunities more readily available for those who can afford things like private tuition. If higher education is going to even resemble a meritocracy, it should offer equal opportunities to everyone, allowing people from all backgrounds an equal opportunity to fight for university places. Although theoretically those buying their places wouldn’t be taking it from other students who had earned it, it undermines the meritocratic system that should be in place in higher education, as it gives more rights to those who can afford higher education than to those without money. Richer students have the opportunity to fight for places, but even if they fail, they can essentially bribe their way into university, having places made available just for them.
This debacle caused Number 10 to denounce the idea, denying the suggestion that it was giving the green light for students to buy places at university, though it is possible that a limited version of this proposal could be included in the government’s higher education White Paper. Liberal Democrats are up in arms over the idea that the proposal would be increasing access to universities for the rich when they already have a great deal of access, and offers very little to poorer students in the way of improved social mobility.
David Willetts’ ideas on tuition fees have been largely blown out of the water. The proposals for the raise in tuition fees have been a disaster for him – in trusting that universities would form themselves into a feudal system, with top universities like Oxford and Cambridge charging the highest possible fees, and those lower in the rankings charging less for degrees, he made a crucial mistake – all universities are seeking to charge the highest amount possible for their degrees, arguing that they need the money in order to improve the quality of their teaching. No university wants to be seen as a budget university, charging lower fees for a lower-quality degree, and most are charging well above the standard prices foreseen by Willetts. Furthermore, the idea that universities must offer support to the poorest students has never been fully set out in stone. To me, this is indicative of Willetts’ attitude – he has refused to follow through with his statements that universities charging the maximum tuition fees shall be an exception, when they have instead become the norm.
Because of the issues that he has brought on, Willetts is currently facing a vote of no confidence by the dons of Oxford University at their conference on June 7, over whether he is actually suitable for the role. He has been described as “incoherent and incompetent” by Dr. Karma Nabulsi, a politics fellow. In trying to inject elements of a free market into education, Willetts is opening the system up to grave abuse by the rich, and his refusal to back up his claims that universities should only charge £9000 in exceptional circumstances has led to a system in which the majority of universities, no matter their place on league tables, is charging an extortionate amount for degrees. I hope that the vote of no confidence at Oxford passes, and that this can cause a greater outcry against a man who appears to have no idea what he’s doing.