The government has been criticised for its new "idea" for universities, to allow rich students to buy places at university. Students will be able to pay the fees that foreign students pay in order to guarantee a place in the course they want. Isn’t this just a sop to the rich that will further harm social mobility? Well, yes and no. It will benefit rich students, but it will open a great many other doors as well.
We are living through a crisis in university education. Last year, 188,697 university applicants failed to get a place after clearing, an increase of around 40% on the year before. This kind of shortage is all too predictable – when you set a price ceiling for something, you should expect shortages. For an example of this, look at the 1973 oil crisis. The US and UK imposed price controls and experienced fuel queues and shortages; Japan and Germany allowed prices to rise and consumption dropped in reaction, with fuel going to the places it was most in demand. So it is with university places – there is more demand than supply, so many people will be left unsatisfied. While this is true of the sector in general, it’s also true for specific universities. Demand for Oxbridge and Russell Group universities is far higher than the supply of places.
The government’s proposals would allow some applicants to pay their own way – creating a place that would otherwise not have existed. This is the crucial point to remember. If a girl's parents pay the extra price for her to go to Oxford, nobody else is deprived of a place. And the place is only available if she has the grades that would qualify her for it anyway. Because the sector is operating under capacity (thanks to the fees price ceiling), paying full fees for a place will create an entirely new place. It’s a positive-sum game.
Some say this is unfair because it offers the rich more options than the poor. But to stop people from being able to pay for places just to bring them down to the level of the poor is completely backwards – we should be trying to see how we can raise the poor up to that level. Equality for its own sake shouldn’t be the objective; what we want is to improve people’s lives. So how could we do this? Quite simply: by making sure that student loans are available to everybody with the grades needed for these places, and allowing universities to raise their fees to reflect the supply and demand for places.
More places would be created and the places lottery would be done away with – if you want to do medicine at Oxford, you’d better be prepared to make the same sacrifices that your competitors are willing to make. The proposals announced today will only entrench priviledge if people continue to insist on artificial depressing place numbers through the fees cap.