Universities should recruit on merit, not means

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Higher education remains a privileged world. Despite the expansion of the past half-century – far more young people go to university now than ever before – only a talented and motivated minority from working-class backgrounds are among those who graduate, while middle-class participation is almost universal.

Higher education remains a privileged world. Despite the expansion of the past half-century – far more young people go to university now than ever before – only a talented and motivated minority from working-class backgrounds are among those who graduate, while middle-class participation is almost universal.

The Government, with its commitment to ensuring that 50 per cent of our young people can experience a university education, thinks this unacceptable. Its solution, outlined in its White Paper last week, is to increase funding by ending up-front tuition fees and charging students in England and Wales up to £3,000 a year in fees payable after graduation.

Expansion certainly cannot take place without investment. Extending higher education to a much larger proportion of young people (in effect, another 350,000 students), means a considerable increase in costs.

There is certainly a financial crisis in our higher education institutions already. They muddle through, with little provision for investment in better facilities, more staff, and more resources for students. The staff are underpaid. They struggle, in an international market, to compete with the research and teaching powerhouses of Harvard and Berkeley.

The Secretary of State for Education speaks of social justice, a phrase that suggests social engineering, but he is nevertheless right to address the unfairness of the UK's university education system.

But if we are to ensure excellence in our places of learning, university education must remain an issue of merit, not means. Eighteen-year-olds from less affluent families should gain greater access to tertiary education, but that access must depend on ability, rather than a desire for politicians to fight a class war.

If New Labour really wants to improve access to universities, its proposals do not go far enough. Poor students will be ex- empt from some fees and receive a £1,000 maintenance grant. This is not nearly enough. Maintenance must be increased, and alternative ways of funding fees, such as a graduate tax, explored. Paying back the cost of your education in proportion to your wages is the fairest system.

Mr Clarke should now consider the provision of large numbers of scholarships, especially for families with several children. And if it insists on ruling out a graduate tax, the Government should reduce the fees repayable by those working in underpaid professions, such as teaching. Otherwise, many prospective students will be put off applying, however likely it is that their future earnings will benefit from three years of study.

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