What’chu Talking About, Willetts? AKA The Abel Magwitch Funding Model

David Willets by bisgovuk

David Willett’s staggering suggestion Tuesday that we could top up university budgets by letting people just buy their way in seems to have made a lot of headlines (including my own).

A lot of people were understandably blindsided by his stunning argument that we could make Britain a more equal society by opening universities up to (a) the very hardest-working, brightest, luckiest kids the middle and working classes have to offer, and (b) rich kids who scrape through the entry exams.

Of course the other David has moved quickly to stamp out that forest fire – but another wee gem seems to have slipped past unscathed and relatively unobserved.From the original story:

A third option for expanding university places without cost to the public purse is by encouraging charities to sponsor students. At present, if a charity wished to fund a group of students from poor backgrounds, those places would have to come out of a university’s existing quota because of the risk that the students involved might need public support in future.

The forthcoming white paper is expected to encourage charity sponsorship, possibly by enabling students to renounce entitlement to public support.

Well, which charities are we talking about here? Presumably the same ones the National Council of Voluntary Organisations surveyed back in March. The ones who said 55% of them were actively planning to lay off staff, and two-thirds of whom said they were going to cut spending, and a third of whom said that meant cutting their services as well. Somehow I don’t think their largesse will extend to packing off a few more kids to Oxford anytime soon.

Of course there’s always the Big Society Bank, which I personally like to imagine is a vast Scrooge McDuck-style swimming pool of money. There’s a good £200m in there, after all; assuming said charities have any luck with that highly contestable fund maybe they could spend some of that dosh on extra places instead. So instead of deserving students receiving a public loan and the welfare entitlements that accompany it, the charities could take out a private loan from as-yet-unspecified fund managers with as-yet-unspecified terms and conditions and no readily apparent way to repay it (since charities don’t usually work on a “give back all the money you gave us and then some more” model).

You might think the above seems like a ludicrous straw-man argument, and normally I’d completely agree. But that’s the only one I can think of, since Willetts has said it’s certainly not his intention that public schools buy up places for their own alumni.

Perish the thought. I mean, imagine if the wealthiest people in the country could use specially-created charities to pay for their own children’s education in elitist institutions, claiming charitable tax deductions while simultaneously drawing on public resources. Imagine!

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