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The UK is on course to have the most expensive public universities in the world once increased fees kick in in 2012. It is therefore unsurprising that there has been such uproar over the suggestion that British students might be allowed to apply for extra university places providing they are able to pay unsubsidised rates. David Willetts – the universities minister behind this faltering suggestion – has made it clear these university places would be ‘off-quota’ (meaning additional to the places that are administered through UCAS) and as such he suggests they would leave normal places free for disadvantaged students.

The UK is on course to have the most expensive public universities in the world once increased fees kick in in 2012. It is therefore unsurprising that there has been such uproar over the suggestion that British students might be allowed to apply for extra university places providing they are able to pay unsubsidised rates. David Willetts – the universities minister behind this faltering suggestion – has made it clear these university places would be ‘off-quota’ (meaning additional to the places that are administered through UCAS) and as such he suggests they would leave normal places free for disadvantaged students.

There are a number of problems with this analysis. There is no evidence that any of the places left ‘free’ by some students opting out of the quota system would be taken by young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. In fact, is it not more likely that these places will be taken by the people they are normally taken by, i.e. middle class, white young people from relatively affluent backgrounds? But the greatest objection is that Willetts' proposal implied richer students will have two shots at university – one through the quota system, one through the off-quota system. Many of us instinctively react against the idea that people should be able to use their wealth to directly access university places not available for others with less money.

The proposals have now been watered down following a public and political outcry. However, our concern about inequality in education should not diminish. The reality is that there is already a two tier system in education. Social class – not ability – remains the strongest predicator of educational achievement in the UK. Recent statistics have highlighted that British children’s educational attainment remains overwhelmingly linked to parental occupation, income, and qualifications. Perhaps this government will not let rich parents buy their children places at university after all. But these same parents are already able to use their wealth and status to give their children advantages such as private education and tuition, interview training, work experience and CV-enhancing extracurricular activities that undoubtedly make their children more likely to reach university than their less affluent (but just as able) counterparts.

To ensure that all young people have a truly equal chance in reaching university, we must start engaging with the barriers disadvantaged young people face a long time before they begin looking at a UCAS form.

For more information on the RSA’s work in this area click here

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