More needed than tinkering

February 18, 2016

John Jerrim’s argument that free university tuition is in effect a subsidy for the rich is quite correct, although it was only one among a raft of such subsidies (“Free university tuition ‘could lead to poor subsidising the rich’”, News, 2 February). The others, such as tax relief on pension savings for higher-rate taxpayers and charitable status for private schools, are rarely challenged. But his conclusion that tuition fees are therefore justified, and that secondary schools need to be improved to tackle the problem of under-achievement by those from poor backgrounds, misses the point.

Until the structural inequalities in our society are tackled, no amount of tinkering with the education system, or efforts by selective universities to “reach out to students from disadvantaged backgrounds”, as urged disingenuously by the universities minister Jo Johnson, will make an iota of difference. Instead, perhaps Johnson should ask himself why so many people are disadvantaged in the first place, rather than simply urging universities to offer a leg-up to a select handful.

David Cameron’s recent attack on universities such as Oxford for their low intake of black students was equally disingenuous; as he knows very well, black and ethnic minority people in this country are held back by class and economic status as much as race. But “class” or “poverty” are terms that you will never hear Cameron or Johnson use; race is a much handier stick with which to blame universities for the inequalities caused by this government.

Nicholas Till
Director of research, school of media, film and music
University of Sussex

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