In defence of David Willetts (and against political oppositional opportunism)

by Stephen Tall on May 10, 2011

The political kerfuffle de jour is the news that — apparently, under Coalition plans — Wealthy parents ‘could buy their children places at elite universities’.

Not surprisingly, the insta-reaction to such a headline, especially among Lib Dems still sore at the party’s U-turn on tuition fees, is horror. Look behind the headline, however, and the idea underpinning it is well worth a look.

Let me state right from the outset: I do not believe that rich parents should be able to buy a university education for their kids that a poorer child cannot afford, and especially so if that poorer child is brighter than the richer one. I am a liberal meritocrat.

But there is a paradox, at the moment, because the current higher education system allows — indeed encourages! — universities to do just that for rich parents… so long as they do not live in the UK or EU.

The vast majority of universities try and balance their books by charging market fees to overseas students; indeed some overseas students would argue that they are over-charged, and that they are being fleeced in order to subsidise our home-grown students. But, then, there’s a free market when it comes to paying for your education if you’re an overseas student, so you pays your money and you takes your choice. Universities like overseas students because the marginal cost of educating them means they generate a profit that can be re-invested in better educational resources for all.

The logical conclusion of today’s outcry is that universities should be banned from charging market fees to overseas students: after all, if the objection to it is that this enables the rich to buy an educational privilege for their children then that objection transcends national boundaries.

The problem is that, if that logical conclusion were taken, then universities would lose income, and would be forced either to increase tuition fees for all, or (if they weren’t allowed to do that) to cut back on investing in their teaching, research and infrastructure.

David Willetts’ proposal (at least as subsequently clarified by Downing Street) is that if business or charity sponsors can be found willing to pay the full market fee costs of additional UK/EU students’ education — ie, students over and above the current state-funded quotas per HE institution — they should be allowed to do so. This would put domestic students on the same footing as overseas students currently. In other words, it would help level the playing field for all.

For as long as the UK has a state-subsidised higher education system, there will be limited capacity, with neither universities nor taxpayers able to afford infinite supply. It follows, therefore, that if you want to increase supply, you will need to look beyond universities and the taxpayer for funding.

Mr Willetts’ idea is an interesting one, and deserves to be considered carefully. What it doesn’t deserve is to be shot down by opposition politicians looking for an easy target… especially when they have no constructive alternative suggestions to put in its place.