Tories act to quell row over university places

The Prime Minister was forced to deny yesterday that the Government had any plans to allow wealthy students to buy places at the country's most elite universities, following a proposal floated by the Universities minister.

David Willetts had said that universities could offer "off-quota" places, charging British students at the same (higher) rate as overseas students to provide extra places.

Mr Willetts subsequently failed to kill off the idea in a follow-up interview with the BBC's Today programme yesterday morning. With the chorus of disapproval and disbelief growing, David Cameron was forced to wade into the argument himself just hours later to declare: "There is no question of people being able to buy their way into university."

Mr Willetts also issued a belated statement saying that the places would be paid for by "charitable donors and employers endowing additional places on a needs-blind basis". He added: "Access to a university must be based on ability to learn not ability to pay."

It was initially suggested that fees of up to £28,000 a year could be charged for students taking up the places, with the cash raised going towards providing extra places at the universities. Those who took them up would not be entitled to student loans or help with accommodation.

This sparked an outcry from lecturers' leaders and opposition MPs with Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, saying it was a return to the days when "breeding not brains" dictated whether an individual obtained a university place.

Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students, said: "The Government is yet again tossing out a poorly conceived policy idea in an attempt to disguise the chaos it has created in university funding and the shortfall in finances that has created."

Cambridge University added that it had no plans to increase university places as a result of the suggestion.

Mr Willetts said he hoped to consult on his proposals after publishing a White Paper on higher education next month.