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August 01, 2011

It's Robin Hood in reverse. AAB+ means subsidies for rich kids at best universities. Meanwhile, our poorest kids are subsidising worst universities.

"Universities cut fees for top students" the Sunday Times splashed across its front page yesterday, noting plans by places including Kent and Essex to cut fees for students with AAB grades at A-level or better. The news tightens the focus on topsy-turvy subsidies as the defining image of the government's new policy on higher education.

Rich kids are being subsidised to go to the "best" universities while poor kids are being used to subsidise the "worst" universities.

Those kids with AAB+ grades being charged £7,000 a year or less by places like Essex fighting for their reputation will come disproportinately from wealthy, middle class families and have been educated at private schools.

These are the same socially priviliged groups who benefit most from the other big subsidy in the system - the cap on tuition fees at the very best universities. They are the ones who have been saved from market-based fees of £20,000 a year or more at places like Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial.

Meanwhile, the socially deprived student body at many former polytechnics will be paying close to £9,000 a year even after allowing for fee waivers and bursaries - far above the market rate. That the high fees will provide a huge and welcome subsidy for these places cannot blind us to where the money is coming from - disproportionately our poorest students.

As a policy, it is Robin Hood in reverse. The rich are to be subsidised, the poor will be subsidising.

Still, that Sunday Times headline will have given many middle class parents some grim satisfaction. At least the money they are spending on private school fees may save them some money later on. If I was David Willetts, I wouldn't be complaining.


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Of course, many middle class parents use state education. Perhaps they will now be willing to give Mr Willetts and his coalition partners a hard time. The system of public higher education built up since Robbins has universalised the aspiration for university eduation, but the government is determined to restrict those aspirations by privatising higher education and creating a stratified system that benefits the products of private secondary education. And our Vice-Chancellor/CEOs follow headlong down this socially regressive path in order to protect their 'brand'. O tempora, o mores...

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