Harry Cockburn: Hooray! We’re all going to be millionaires! Except for the poor

One in five people who gain a university education will end up becoming millionaires, new figures from the Office for National Statistics have revealed. Hooray for education. Hooray for money.

But is this a victory for the importance of good schooling, or does it highlight a much more sinister trend we should be wary of?

More than two million people in the UK now have assets totalling more than £1m, according to the ONS. Of this figure, just 3% have no formal educational qualifications.

Becoming wealthy increasingly depends upon educational attainment levels. In 2006–07, just 16% of graduates were asset millionaires, according to the Telegraph’s James Kirkup.

The figure now stands at 20%, the new data shows.

David Willetts, the universities minister, said that the most recent ONS figures were “more evidence of why going to university is a very good deal”.

“It shows why it’s fair to ask graduates to pay back the cost of their higher education, and why increasing the number of people who go to university will spread wealth and opportunity.”

But is this entirely true? The price of higher education since the coalition came to power is now so high that potential students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are put off the extraordinary debt burden they will have to shoulder.

The unsurprising effect is that many talented individuals are unable to enjoy the same prospects as their more comfortably-off peers.

To the ruling class this is all fine and dandy. It maintains a hierarchy based on inherited wealth and status.

In a 2003 article in the Times, the current education minister Michael Gove outlined his attitude to tuition fees with brutal clarity: “Do you want to run up a debt of £21,000 in order to go to the best British universities? Some people will, apparently, be put off applying to our elite institutions by the prospect of taking on a debt of this size.

“Which, as far as I’m concerned, is all to the good.”

This means that Willetts’ talk of universities spreading “wealth and opportunity” remains limited to just those who can afford it.

The ONS report on British households’ investments, property and possessions shows that the richest 10% of British households now hold an incredible 44% of total household wealth, and this proportion has increased since the government came to power.

This elite sector of society owns roughly five times as much as the poorest 50% of the population, which holds just 9% of total wealth.

This is shocking, but it isn’t just bad for those at the bottom. The UK’s growing disparity in wealth is also bad news for those at the top.

In January, a major study by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned that countries with higher levels of inequality suffered lower growth than countries where wealth was spread more evenly. In countries with larger gaps between the rich and the poor, growth is likely to be more volatile, less stable, and more prone to sudden downturns.

As the wealth gap grows, with it we are undoing our own economic prosperity.

Our current system ensures that higher education is now only available to the richest. This is not only morally repugnant, it’s also bad economics.

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