Upfront fees, perks for the rich, and the social mobility problem

Got cash? Feeling flush? Pay your money up front and enjoy the university YOU want to attend.

photo by alancleaver_2000

photo by alancleaver_2000

David Willetts, Minister for Universities & Science, is looking at proposals that allow rich students (or rich parents) to pay higher fees up front to attend university. These places would be ‘off quota’, so they would not change numbers going through standard channels of application.

But Willetts’ argument is facing a backlash from the outset. Willetts suggests that social mobility will improve because there will end up being more places available to students who cannot afford to pay straight up.

While the proposals have not yet been agreed and details are yet to be finalised, that hasn’t stopped negative opinion from emerging. Twitter has been awash with it this morning. By example, two major complaints of the idea are:

  1. Rich people will be able to choose the institution they wish to attend, thus making some universities more elitist;
  2. To cite social mobility is upsetting for many who simply see this move as an opportunity for rich people to buy a place while a standard student doesn’t have this guarantee.

Today’s report in The Guardian highlights the complexities and potential problems, but also the possible benefits from the new ideas under discussion.

There is no answer to what’s under discussion, because no detail has been agreed. On top of this, we’re already facing massive changes in terms of fees and funding both for students and for universities. This new proposal is yet another alteration that adds to the confusion. It’s almost impossible to find a solid base to work from to help higher education or students at the moment.

Entry requirements are set to be the same for those looking to pay more, yet there is still much chatter on Twitter of buying places without the grades. Willetts said on Radio 4 that this type of practice is not under proposal.

If entry grades are, therefore, set to be the same as standard places, what benefits would someone paying up front have?

  1. Practically guaranteed place to the institution you choose to pay for (because it’s not a place under quota);
  2. Money paid now means there is no need to think about loans and paying off in the future.

The first point is much more powerful than the second. Rather than worry about an oversubscribed institution, one payment after you get the grades is all you need to go where you want.

Yes, it’s a perk. Yes, entry is based on wealth (after grade requirements have been met). But that doesn’t mean it cannot be used positively. The detail needs to be careful so as not to create an elitist normality. Additionally, much of the cash should be redistributed to help less affluent applicants and the like. In no way should this be seen solely as a money-making exercise for institutions, even if institutions require more cash. Balancing the books this way would set a dangerous precedent.

Unfortunately, discussion has been limited this morning because of the angle given to the new proposals. In mixing advantages for rich people with improving social mobility, any chance of debate and constructive discussion over these proposals has been blown out of the water.

If, despite the almost immediate backlash, the government proposals become a reality, I imagine they will ditch the ‘social mobility’ justification. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re looking to move away from that angle already.

UPDATE: When I mentioned a backlash, I wasn’t exaggerating.

In fact, such opposition meant the government had to rush out a statement on this matter. David Willetts said:

“We will only consider allowing off-quota places where it contributes to the coalition commitment to improve social mobility and increase fair access.

“There is no question of wealthy students being able to buy a place at university. Access to a university must be based on ability to learn not ability to pay.

“We have been discussing the idea of charitable donors and employers endowing additional places on a needs blind basis which will be subject for consultation in the higher education white paper.” [Source]

Wonkhe has also posted on the off-quota places issue and admitted, “May need to update later on as things move”.

It is a fast moving day. And It’s only midday at time of writing this! To put it into perspective, the final (amusing) thought can go to Thomas Graham:


  1. I just want to add that “getting the same grades” does NOT equal fair. Eg almost everyone applying to Oxbridge has straight As but only a fraction get in. If you say to rich kids, get straight As and you can buy a place at Oxbridge then you are giving the rich a leg up and making the unis bastions of privilige.

    1. Agreed. There is a world of difference amongst those with exactly the same grades. A difference that cannot easily or consistently be quantified and grasped. But it is a difference to be aware of and to consider with care.

  2. Fees for international undergraduates can be as high as £12000 a year for arts subjects, … I start from the view that an increase in the total number of higher education places could aid social mobility. … More perks for the privileged? … Bank accounts aren’t free, so why don’t we pay upfront?

  3. Let’s also consider the impact of private schooling. They are better at getting results, but not necessarily educating in my opinion. Gathered through personal experience & discussions with teachers at these schools, the onus is on training the students to be good at exams, not good critical analysis. (Which happily segues to Mario’s WonkHE post.

    1. That post doesn’t make sense really. I’ve just given up writing syntax haven’t I? Oh dear.

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