Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Oi, Willetts... NO!...

I'll say this, I don't know what David Willetts is smoking at the moment, but it's certainly hallucinogenic. Even hinting at the possibility that the wealthy could buy their way into the university of their choice for their children is, at best, ill-advised.

And yet, he is considered to be one of the greatest brains amongst Conservatives, which only goes to demonstrate that intelligence and common sense are not always mutually inclusive. His comments on feminism and social mobility were interesting, even if they proved to be a hostage to fortune, especially in his assertion that feminism had had a negative effect on social mobility. I can't imagine why women might not have agreed with him on that one...

Ironically, the subsequent debate demonstrated that he had some good points, but had undermined them with a flawed contextual setting. And it remains difficult to conclude that women have attained a level playing field in the areas that matter - employment, opportunity, politics. He also played to the fears of those who believe that Conservatism is designed to maintain power in the hands of a small, self-selecting elite.

But back to universities. The notion that individuals should be able to buy places in universities for themselves or their children would be unacceptable if it meant that others would be excluded. If it meant that those whose academic talents were insufficient went to university whilst the talented were excluded, society at large would be concerned.

And there are already programmes where employers sponsor students, whereby they agree to pay part, or all, of their fees in return for a commitment to work for the company for a designated period, so the notion of employers effectively buying places in universities is not such a huge step. But it is a worrying one.

You see, what is there to stop say, Valladares Investments LLC, based in the Cayman Islands, from deciding to buy a place for a young person to studying at the University of East Anglia (my old university)? Who decides who that young person would be? What is there to prevent the Chairman from selecting his grandson? In other words, what protection is there against nepotism, and what incentive is there to promote social mobility? Call me a cynic if you will, but you can just see how it will work in reality.

So, just give this one up, Mr Willetts, and focus on getting employers to sponsor students. Best of all, they'll sponsor students in the disciplines that they, and the country, most need, ensure future employment for more of them and provide guidance to universities in terms of demand management.

No, the market isn't always the solution, but it can be a healthy part of it sometimes...

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