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Conservative Infighting Over University Reform

Universities Minister David Willetts’ recent outbursts over the price of Higher Education have proved to be a divisive issue for the Conservative party, with many split over controversial proposals made by the Conservative MP for Havant.

Willetts proposed that students who did not gain a place at their chosen university could then pay tuition fees upfront, paying as much as £12,000 per year for arts courses and £28,000 for medicine, in line with rates charged by Universities for foreign students.

This suggestion, which would allow ‘off-quota’ places for those who could afford it, sparked a backlash amongst MPs, furious at a policy that would exclude many poorer students. Labour’s John Denham, speaking against the move, asserted that it was “a cruel betrayal of Middle England”. David Cameron moved swiftly to dismiss the proposals, saying, “there is no question of people being able to buy their way into University”.

Days later, Willetts again found himself in the firing line after announcing another Higher Education proposal, which would see universities reducing the price of degrees and, according to the Daily Mail, “offering free laptops and ipods to lure students” onto course places that remain unfilled in the weeks before the start of term. David Green, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Worcester, argued, “You cannot buy University education and then sell it on like you would a car or a piece of furniture”.

Many politicians expressed concern that certain students would hold out on applications in order to gain a cut-price degree and that it would cause inequality amongst students, with those who had achieved the necessary grades paying full-price and those who have failed to obtain the required grades “rewarded” with lower tuition fees. Labour MP David Lammy claimed that Willets seemed to think that “universities are like EasyJet and you can buy your way to the front of the queue”.

Settit Beyene

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