It’s being alleged that the government is thinking of allowing universities to give extra places to richer students who can pay higher fees - the idea being that this would allow poorer students to win more places on the capped fees.
I reckon there are four arguments against this:
1. More means worse. Lecture halls will be more crowded and students will get less facetime with their tutors. There’s also an atmospheric externality. If universities have even more rich students, the poorer ones will feel even more out of place. Many Oxbridge students have for years found the atmosphere unpleasant and alienating. This’ll only make things worse.
2. Social meanings. Goods, said Michael Walzer, should be distributed according to the social meaning. And this puts a block upon what money can buy. For example, healthcare should go to the sick not the rich, jobs to those best able to do them rather than the well-connected. And so on. It’s a reasonable interpretation of this principle that education should go to those best able to use it, rather than to the wealthy. As R.H. Tawney said: “To serve educational needs, without regard to the vulgar irrelevancies of class and income is part of a teacher’s honour.” If you’re going to sell university places to the rich, why not sell places in, say, the West Ham team to their wealthy supporters?*
3. Education is (partly) a positional good. Part of the value of my Oxford degree consists in the fact that other people don’t have one. Giving university places to people who would otherwise be excluded reduces this positional value.
4. Signal dilution. An even larger part of the value of an Oxford education is its signalling effect; it signals to prospective employers that one is smart enough to get a place at Oxford. But if places are allocated on the basis of money, this signal is diluted. To the extent that employers cannot distinguish between those who got in on merit and those who got in on money, this disadvantages the meritorious job applicant.
Herein, though, lies a problem. These arguments are, in effect, a defence of inequality. I’m asking for the privileges of an elite to be maintained. It just happens that the elite is one selected by brains rather than wealth.
But what, morally speaking is the difference? What’s the difference between the Oxford applicant who has won the genetic lottery for intellect and one who has rich parents. Both have advantages that are, in Rawls’ phrase, arbitrary from a moral point of view.
The answer, I think, lies in Walzer’s idea of complex equality. To distribute everything according to one criteria - so that the rich, or powerful, or clever, or pious get all the goods - is, he said, tyrannical. Distributing goods according to limited meanings is a way of limiting such tyranny, because it allows some inequalities to act as counterweights to others. Allocating university places on the grounds of ability is inegalitarian when viewed in isolation, but it might - to the extent that ability and income are uncorrelated - be a counterweight to the inequality created by the fact that so many goods are allocated according to income.
Viewed in this light, the coalitions proposals are, in a sense, totalitarian; they imply that one thing - money - should decide how the total of all goods should be distributed.
* Lesser men than I would make the obvious point here.