Melanie Phillips

10 May 2011

'Speak up -- my other ear is wired to the Guardian'

Published in: Spectator

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The British Universities Minister, David Willetts, is famously known as ‘Two Brains’ on account of the superiority of his intellect. After what has happened today, however, he may find himself unfortunately saddled with the soubriquet of ‘no brain’.

This morning, we awoke to a puzzling interview he gave on Radio Four’s Today programme, following an equally puzzling front page splash in the Guardian.

This story told us that Willetts was putting forward a proposal -- to be fleshed out in a White Paper to be published this summer -- to allow students from wealthy families to pay for places at the most prestigious and over-subscribed universities.

Such places, we were informed, would be over and above the ‘quota’ of the universities’ publicly funded places. Students who took up such places would not be eligible for publicly funded student loans, and would be charged as much as students coming from overseas -- the universities’ most profitable source of income.

Enter Willetts, who claimed that increasing the number of university places like this would improve social mobility. Eh? How could it do so, since wealthy students would be buying places at top universities? Social mobility, after all, means more people from poor backgrounds moving up the ladder of opportunity.

Ah, said Willetts: if the wealthy bought their own places, this would free up more places for the poor.

Eh? At the same time, he was insisting that these places for the well-off would be over and above the publicly-funded quota. So how could they free up any places for the poor if they were to be extraneous to existing provision?

The game was more or less given away in the Guardian story by the person credited with dreaming up this wheeze.  Last year, it reported, Ruth Farwell, vice-chancellor of Buckinghamshire New University, had argued that

students who could afford to pay more were taking up publicly funded places, squeezing out those most in need.

Ah! So it seemed that the idea was to squeeze out those who were not in need from the best universities.  So that’s what Willetts meant by social mobility – that the wealthy would be mobilised all the way to the campus exit, or to be rather more accurate, the till.

Or was it? Did he even know what he meant? For on Today, he seemed distinctly uncertain, saying more than once that all the challenges thrown at him needed to be sorted out in the consultation exercise now under way.

But of course, the idea that the better-off might in any way be disadvantaged by anything never occurs to the BBC mind. And so all the questioning was based on the premise that Willetts was proposing to provide privileges for the rich to buy places at good universities – and at a time when many universities were charging top-whack £9000 tuition fees, and when university places were being cut by some 10,000 places.

In other words, to the BBC (and the education unions) this was the same old same old – cruel heartless Tories, favouring the rich and screwing the poor.

But hang on a minute. Willetts ( who ever since David Cameron decided to take the Tories to the left has discovered his own inner social engineer) has repeatedly promoted policies which continue Labour’s strategy of favouring the poor over the better-off, and has accordingly dumped meritocracy and social justice in pursuit of the left-wing shibboleth (and Guardian mantra) of equality of outcomes.

Those from good schools or leafy postcodes are already discriminated against when it comes to university admissions. Universities with a funding gun at their heads are being forced to turn students away, on the hideously unjust grounds that their families come from the right side of the tracks.

The terrible thing is that this is not only unfair but a policy resting upon a catastrophic false premise.  For the belief that half the population needs a university education, for both their own and the nation’s benefit, could not be more wrong.

It has meant that the universities have disastrously dumbed down to cover the fact that so many students are simply unsuited to academic life. Entrance requirements have been emasculated in order to shoehorn in untold numbers who simply can’t hack it.

Far from increasing social mobility, as Willetts so fondly imagines, this enormous expansion of places has helped ruin the entire education system and trapped the poorest in disadvantage through the combination of collapsing education standards and a tokenism which deprives non-academic young people of what they actually need – the wherewithal to get a decent job.

The result is a record drop-out rate -- from universities which previously boasted one of the highest retention rates of students in the world. This is largely because so many are being funnelled into courses such as surf science and technology, hairdressing and salon management or stained-glass window studies – absurd courses which they correctly judge to be totally pointless.

Nor does the British economy actually need so many graduates. As Professor Alan Smithers has pointed out, Switzerland has a more impressive GDP per head than the UK, but fewer graduates; Poland has more graduates than the UK, but a much weaker economy.

Nevertheless, Willetts has enthusiastically continued this policy of social engineering. So was it really likely that he would suddenly lurch from class war into favouring the rich? Of course not.

In fact, there was another way altogether of looking at his proposal. This was that the better-off would now be expected to pay for what was previously considered the equal right of everyone to higher education. Now the Government was telling the better-off that that if they really wanted a good university education they alone would have to pay for it – or get sponsorship for their course from a company or a charity.

This was also surely the thin end of a very large wedge indeed. For without a doubt, the ‘wealthy’ would soon include large swathes of the already extorted middle classes. And before long, we’d find that more and more students – perhaps even the majority – would be paying for their university education while the state funded merely the poorest.

The likely practicalities were startlingly unjust – not to the poor, but to the better-off. One version of the scheme suggested that universities would assess all candidates for their educational qualifications without knowing their backgrounds; only then would they would offer those from better-off homes ‘places off the quota’.

Just imagine what this would mean in practice! A candidate who had achieved all the required exam grades and been put through interviews and jumped through other admission hoops would suddenly be told: ‘Congratulations! You have qualified for a place at this university. But because your parents are wealthy, you are going to have to pay for it.’ Where would be the justice in that?

In other words, what we had here was a fiendish coalition (so to speak) of two agendas. The first was our old friend social engineering; the second was the desire to reduce public spending -- which would effectively mean privatising higher education  by the back door, with the poor old middle classes once again being used as the state’s milch-cow.

Indeed, one could go further and say that this would be robbing the middle-class twice over -- first by taking away the rewards for academic achievement that should rightfully be theirs; and then by bleeding them dry for the privilege. The middle classes would thus be manoeuvred into paying for the very policy of social engineering that causes them such grief.

This was surely a policy of such breathtaking cynicism that even the immortal Sir Humphrey Appleby would have been hard put to invent it.

But during the course of yesterday, nary a peep of this was heard from anyone. Instead, the airwaves rang with the accusation that Willetts was proposing to favour the rich. And so enter David Cameron, the ‘toff’ desperate to live down his Eton education and who has a neuralgic obsession with destroying any hint of a suggestion that the Tories favour the rich and stuff the poor. This afternoon, the Prime Minister accordingly dumped upon Willetts’s proposal from a great height – not because it would hurt the better-off, which it would, but because of the perception that it would benefit them.

Now the hapless Willetts is insisting similarly that there is ‘no question’ of wealthy students being able to buy a university place.

A satirist could hardly create better political comedy. But is this really the way to run a Conservative-led government?

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography


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Melanie Phillips
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