Paying the price of education

I woke up to Twitter comments about rich people being able to buy places at university and complaints about the Conservatives getting rid of merit based achievement. Damn those Conservatives. I don’t doubt that by the time they leave office the nation will be a bloody mess but when has higher education ever been just about merit?

The system is supposed to look something like this. You go to secondary school and achieve good grades (however you define good), get in to a university and keep showing up until you graduate with a degree. If you do the work you’ll reap the rewards.

It’s nice in theory but the government only funds a certain amount of places. 697,351 people applied to attend a higher education institution (HEI) through UCAS last year and over 200,000 did not get a place. Most of those applicants probably had the ability to complete a degree so it’s not that they weren’t good enough.

The system is already based on money. The biggest predictor of attending university is grades at A level. Students at independent and grammar schools are more likely to get higher grades than students at non-fee paying schools. People who have paid for their education are already more likely to go to on to higher education.

The vision of higher education as a natural progression after secondary school is also not quite right. Only about 60% of applicants were 18-19 years old and not all had traditional qualifications.

During Clearing there are additional places reserved for international students who already pay the full fee for their own courses.

In my view, the best system is that provided by the Open University. Education is made available. That’s it. For a cost admittedly but it is open to all and is of extremely high quality.

The government does not fund all HE places, some funding is provided by the NHS and there are also private HEIs.

As I write this, David Willetts, the universities and science minister, has apparently backed down from the idea first reported in the THE that “[u]niversities could be allowed to recruit unlimited numbers of UK undergraduates who are able pay their tuition fees upfront under plans being considered by the coalition government.” He is quoted by THE as saying that individuals will not be able to fund off-quota places. Businesses and charities will, but with “strict conditions”.

We will have to see what the higher education reform white paper specifies for the future but even if off quota places cannot be bought by individuals, this doesn’t mean that it’s all merit based. We’ve still got a long way to go before the system is fair to everyone.

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