David Willetts on back foot over extra university places for higher fees

Cameron and Cable insist rich students won't be able to buy university places, but critics warn of 'serious blow' to social mobility

The universities minister, David Willetts, has defended proposals to create extra places on degree courses that would not be publicly funded after critics warned that the plans could deal a "serious blow" to social mobility. British students who take the extra places could be charged the same fees as overseas undergraduates.

Employers and charities will also be encouraged to sponsor places outside the quota that English universities are set every year.

The government was engulfed in a row over the plans after critics claimed it would allow the rich to "buy advantage".

Willetts said: "We will only consider allowing off-quota places where it contributes to the coalition commitment to improve social mobility and increase fair access. There is no question of wealthy students being able to buy a place at university. Access to a university must be based on ability to learn, not ability to pay."

Ministers have insisted that off-quota students would still have to meet entry requirements for their course and there is no question of the rich being able to "buy their way" into university.

Willetts says an overall expansion of places would increase social mobility by freeing up more spaces for students from poorer homes.

Despite the furore, Whitehall sources confirmed that a version of the proposal, first outlined in the Guardian yesterday, will still appear in the universities white paper, due to be published in June.

Speaking during a series of TV interviews, David Cameron insisted that the proposal would not create privileged access to universities for rich students. "University access is about being able to learn, not about being able to pay," he said.

"There is no question of people being able to buy their way into university."

Number 10 stressed no proposal would be backed if it reduced social mobility.

Vince Cable, the business secretary, said he was willing to look at how to expand off-quota places through company sponsorships, but he did not support children of the rich being given priority access to university.

In a sign of the Liberal Democrats' determination to assert more directly their differences with the Tories following the election debacle, Tim Farron, the party's president and Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, said higher education should be "free at the point of use" for everyone who can benefit from going to university.

Farron, whose party took a hit at the polls last Thursday for their U-turn on tuition fee rises, told BBC News that any proposal that looked like increasing university access for the rich would not get his backing: "I hugely regret that there are tuition fees at all, never mind the higher ones we currently have. It's right that we should explore ways that people from less well-off backgrounds have the best possible access to higher education."

The proposal was welcomed by some university representatives, who said it could lead to more innovative ways of paying for a degree. Off-quota places could be provided for undergraduates who do not wish to take out government loans but need a flexible way to finance their studies.

Andy Westwood, chief executive of GuildHE, which represents smaller and specialist institutions, said universities might adopt a "mix and match" approach in which students who were debt-averse could study part-time for part of their degree, then opt for the full student experience in their final year.

"Providing off-quota places can be socially progressive. GuildHE institutions recruit many students who might be worried about the new [fee] arrangements, such as those from lower income backgrounds, those based at home, part-time and mature students.

"With the right incentives, this could lead to more innovative and flexible choices such as part-time, intensive and modular courses, with 'pay as you go' options."

Westwood said that GuildHE institutions, which include the Royal Agricultural College and Norwich University College of the Arts, had seen a 9% increase in student numbers in 2009/10, while demand for places continues to grow.

"Off-quota flexibilities could ease the pressure on university places and allow more qualified people of every background to go to higher education."

Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire University and chair of the university thinktank Million+, said: "There is one very obvious pro, and that is, it's a source of additional money at a time when the sector is being squeezed very hard.

"We've been very successful in this university in recruiting full-fee international students, and because you can recruit for the full fee you can create another place for them. It's a tragedy, when there are people who are qualified and want to go to university that they can't do it here."

However, the proposal was criticised by the National Union of Students and the University and College Union, which represents lecturers.

The shadow business secretary, John Denham, said: "Ability and ambition should be the only factors that determine which students can get into the most sought-after universities. This Tory government believes that access to wealth and privilege should trump ability.

"Middle-class, middle-income families whose children don't get into selective universities at first shot are going to feel terrible pressure to raise private finance, to take out bank loans, to remortgage their homes or feel that they've betrayed their children."

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, the charity which campaigns to improve social mobility, said that the proposal would deal "a serious blow to social mobility". "Students from privileged backgrounds are already way overrepresented at our top universities and this will make matters worse," he said.

Richard Taylor, director of corporate affairs at Leicester University, said that allowing wealthy British students to pay high fees for off-quota places threatened to create a two-tier system.

"How you make an admissions process needs-blind is incredibly challenging if you introduce the concept of off-quota. You assume that the selection process ends at the point the offer is made. It doesn't – it ends at the point that a student turns up and registers. If you're only going to find a student is off-quota after they arrive, I'm OK with that. If you're going to know before, then it's going to influence your thinking.

"The one advantage is that if you had a really needs-blind process, you would release additional places. That's the main advantage both for the sector and for students."


Jeevan Vasagar, Patrick Wintour and Hélène Mulholland

The GuardianTramp

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