John Denham, Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, tabled an urgent question yesterday evening, following news about off-quota university places. It allowed the Minister, David Willetts to make his position clear (emphasis added):
Mr John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills if he will make a statement on the proposals for students to buy off-quota university places.
The Minister for Universities and Science (Mr David Willetts): Fair access to university is crucial for achieving equality of opportunity, and there is a clear issue of principle here. Access to a university must be based on ability to learn, not on ability to pay. There is absolutely no question of wealthy students being able to buy their way into university.
As the coalition prepares its White Paper on higher education, we are considering possible ways to allow universities to recruit extra students in addition to their student number allocation. Any such arrangement would have to comply with the principle that access to university must be based on ability to learn, not on ability to pay. That is why, in the Secretary of State’s speech to the Higher Education Funding Council on 6 April, he said:
“Another measure for the longer term could be to remove student number controls which inhibit universities’ ability to recruit students who represent no burden to the public purse. For example, I don't believe that universities should be prevented from expanding courses where employers cover students’ costs”.
We are considering two options: first, making it easier for employers to sponsor students at university; and secondly, making it easier for charities to sponsor students at university. Any such scheme would need to comply with the following conditions: the principles of fair access must apply; there would need to be genuine additional places; there would be no reduction in entrance standards; and, of course, rich individuals should not be able to buy their way into university.
Everything this coalition does is guided by our belief in the need to improve social mobility after it stagnated under the Labour party. We will set out our proposals in the White Paper, which will be published shortly.
Some Labour members' subsequent questions were notable for their "class war" rhetoric:
- Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): Affluence is influence, and this is a triumph of affluence over ability. The Government have to recognise that it is social networking that leads to people accessing this type of support to go to university, so it will not be directed at the poorest people from our constituencies. It will be an opportunity for those who do not meet the criteria for entering university to get in by the back door because they have access to private finance.
- Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister has categorically refused not to rule out private schools buying places for their students. Is this yet another idea dreamt up on the playing fields of Eton?
- Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): The key point is that people have to get into university first and then get the sponsorship from outside, otherwise the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) will be right: this will be a charter for extending access to universities, because more thick rich people will be going to university.
- Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): I say, Mr Speaker, there might be many on the Tory Benches who think it an absolutely spiffing idea to allow mummy and daddy to purchase privilege through this toff quota. Should this principle be extended, perhaps to allow mummy and daddy to purchase a parliamentary seat, the odd ambassadorship or even, dare I say it, a top judge’s job?