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Selling Educational 'Indulgences' in the U.K.

Posted by Josh Rothman  May 12, 2011 10:30 AM

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A fierce debate is raging in the U.K. about a new proposal to let wealthy students pay for places at top universities -- even if they've been rejected through the regular admissions process. As it stands now, British universities have firm quotas for the number of students they can admit, and those places are filled through meritocratic competition. Once you get in, you pay a low, flat fee to attend (about $6,000 a year to attend Oxford). But David Willets, the education minister, is proposing to create new, "off-quota" places, open to students who haven't made the cut, as long as they can afford to pay substantially higher fees. Rage and confusion have been the immediate results of his proposal.


All this can be yours... for a price.

Proponents of the plan say that it will actually encourage social mobility: after all, these are "extra" places, so it's not like spots are being taken away from the less affluent. The extra revenue will benefit everyone, and help stabilize a shaky educational system. Moreover, it's not as though a horde of zombie underachieves will descend on the best schools. The students most likely to take advantage of the program would be those who almost made it in -- the kids on the margin between the 3,000 who were accepted at Oxford, for example, and the 17,000 who applied. Finally, they argue, funding could be reduced at lesser schools once wealthy students can pay to go elsewhere -- an added bonus! (As the U.K.'s business secretary puts it: "Institutions could very well find themselves in trouble if students can't see value. In circumstances where places are unfilled, we might withdraw those places, and institutions should not assume they will easily get them back.")

Opponents of the plan -- and there are lots of them -- declare it profoundly regressive. John Denham, a Labour MP, says that the government "intends to create a two-tier system -- one method of entry for the most able, another for those with access to private funds from one source or another." If you want to fund the universities, they say, then fund them. If you want to make extra places, then make them open to the most accomplished. Willets, meanwhile, has begun to backtrack, saying that the extra places could be paid for by charities, or by corporations looking to sponsor students.

These corporate sponsorships are already happening throughout the U.K. The accounting firm KPMG has already launched one such program -- it pays college tuitions for students at Durham University. They work for the firm while getting an accounting degree. The pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKline has a similar system in place at the University of Nottingham: Their sponsored chemistry module, they explain, "introduces chemistry students to the medicinal chemistry skills the pharmaceutical industry requires while also enhancing knowledge transfer between industry and academia." In the GSK program, 12 students are selected by the university during their third year of school to pursue "an active research programme on a molecular target that the pharmaceutical company is developing." These are exciting, useful programs -- and they're not quite the same thing as the selling of "off-quota" places to wealthy students.

Who knows what will become of Willets' plan -- perhaps nothing. In any case, it highlights the surprising moral power of the university admissions system. Admissions officers, in their own ways, stand as guardians over the principles of fairness and openness, and the university derives prestige from its store of moral credibility. Making deals to sell that credibility can be dangerous. In the Middle Ages, Catholic clergy conceived of themselves as selling beneficence from an infinite "treasury" of holiness; they used the money from the indulgences they sold to build hospitals, churches, and leper colonies. But the system got out of control (as one sixteenth-century preacher famously put it, "As soon as money in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory's fire springs"), and had to be Reformed. There are lots of good, practical, even intellectually substantive reasons for bringing private money into the university. But the treasury of holiness isn't, in fact, infinite.

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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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