This morning David Willetts took the airwaves to float the idea of ‘off-quota’ places at university. Not a new idea by any means, but an interesting indication of the direction of travel for the HE White Paper which most now expect in the first half of June. On the one hand, there is a sound political argument for leaking out policy initiatives in this way; it can have the effect of softening up the ground for when the big one drops later on.
But David Willetts has underestimated the toxicity of a policy like this which touches a very raw nerve indeed. Still wounded by the fees and funding settlement, this will feel like a kick in the teeth to those still clinging on to the idea that access to HE should never depend on the ability to pay. The ‘free at the point of use’ principle, still hanging on by its finger-nails, ensured that there was always going to be the greatest strength of feeling against the deep cuts to the teaching grant. The ensuing high fees for many felt like the sad, but necessary consequence of this – softened by continued commitment not to charge up-front fees.
But the idea of ‘off-quota’ places sends a deeply conflicted message at a very sensitive time. On Monday the Government launched a PR campaign to explain the new fees system – with a strong emphasis on the idea that nothing needs to be paid up front to enter HE. But this policy simply helps to re-enforce the counter-narrative that suggests it is indeed the size of your wallet that matters if you want to go to university.
David Willetts claims that this idea will need to meet a “social mobility test” – but framed in this way, and taken to its logical conclusion, it seems impossible not to predict that this will further embed the dominance of the richest firstly through education and on in to the professions and Government. This will hinder social mobility, not help it. Astonishingly, Vince Cable has this morning come out against this idea – perhaps part of the Lib Dem’s new plan to posture a little bit more within the Coalition. But this simply looks dysfunctional and disorganised. And Vince Cable will always be 100% complicit in this Government’s higher education policy as Secretary of State responsible.
It is claimed that entry criteria would need to be met in the usual way despite the availability of an off-quota option – but this could provide an incentive to some universities to vigorously chase these places for financial benefit, in a similar way to the approach adopted for international students in many quarters of the sector. But the truly elite institutions will never need to compromise their reputation for academic excellence in this way.
This policy also assumes that many institutions want to grow their student numbers, but this simply isn’t the case. Many want to the stay the same, or even shrink. Which makes it even harder to understand exactly who this benefits and how. Leaking policies to soften up the ground is an old trick, but it can backfire terribly if the policy creates a large enough and strong enough sense of outrage. As David Willetts is pounced on from every corner today – he must surely be asking himself if this was really the right time to open up this row.
UPDATE: The Government is already showing signs of back-tracking on this proposal and No. 10 has claimed that it is not “agreed policy”. Even more curious then that the idea was floated in the way that it was.
UPDATE 2: It seems that they were indeed totally caught off guard by the Guardian scoop last night. So why didn’t they dismiss the story earlier? Sending Willetts on Today poured a lot of fuel on the fire.