Leading article: The rich should not be able to buy preference

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Samuel Beckett was once asked why he quit his job as a university lecturer teaching the cream of Irish society. Indeed, the rich and the thick, was his riposte. The Tory minister, David Willetts, was forced into an embarrassing climbdown before the House of Commons yesterday after suggestions that he wanted to introduce a two-tier system in English universities which would apparently favour those with money over those with academic ability.

Politicians who fly kites take the risk that they might be struck by lightning. That was what happened yesterday to Mr Willetts. He failed to grasp how controversial it would be for a government which has trebled university fees and cut university places by 10,000 to suggest that universities might create extra places for British students who would pay up to £28,000 a year for "off-quota" places.

By mid-morning he was back-pedalling furiously on an idea that critics portrayed as a daddy's chequebook exercise in old-style Tory privilege. In Parliament, Mr Willetts was forced to state categorically that the scheme to allow businesses and charities to fund extra places would not allow rich students unfair access. Public schools, many of which have charitable status, would not be able to buy places, he promised, but he failed to dispel fears that family trust funds and the old boy network would buy preference in a system where almost a third of applicants now fail to secure a university place.

The Coalition has made a mess of university funding. Graduates should pay something towards the indisputable benefits they will gain from a publicly subsidised university education. But these reforms have been unleashed too suddenly, and with inadequate tapering down of public funding, to create a proper market in university places. Some innovative thinking is now needed, but it should not be done in public causing needless alarm to students and their families. These proposals look like a half-baked attempt to paper over the chaos the Coalition has caused in universities. And Mr Willetts needs to learn the basic political wisdom of what to do when in a hole.

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