David Willetts is said by his friends to have “two brains”. I just wish he’d engage at least one of them before opening his mouth. His latest observations on education show a lack of both common sense, and of any understanding of basic conservative principles.
I have written before about the Coalition’s attempts to subvert university admissions in the interests of social engineering. Willetts, ably abetted by Nick Clegg, starts out from the assumption that all students are created equal, and therefore that if any demographic group is under-represented in the student population, it must be the victim of disadvantage or discrimination. From there, it is a short step to concluding that the government must do something (usually a bad move).
So far, the emphasis has been on children from poorer homes and from the state sector, though there has also been discussion of ethnic minorities and gender balance. The government pressured universities to lower admissions standards so as to “broaden access”. Let’s be clear about this: it means that less-well-qualified candidates will be preferred to better qualified candidates. We can’t say it too often: that’s bad for quality and achievement; bad for our universities; bad for our economy; bad for our country; bad for able applicants who are rejected.
But it is also, if less obviously, bad for the less-qualified students who “benefit” from this “positive discrimination”. They may struggle to keep up: they will be much more likely to drop out. They may end up with a poor degree and no job, or flipping burgers. And they will have spent a lot of money on fees, and be burdened by debt. They could have done much better on a vocationally-oriented training programme or apprenticeship scheme.
But now, far from seeing the error of his ways, Willetts has identified yet another disadvantaged group — “working class white boys”.
(You may think that this group rather overlaps with “children from poorer homes”, but no matter). Doesn’t Willetts, with his two brains, understand that if you identify every under-represented group, and discriminate positively in favour of all of them, you are, in fact, merely discriminating against the very people who should be going to university? I say “should” for their own sakes, for the universities, for the country and for the economy.
The fact is that universities know a great deal more about their business than most politicians. Anyone with conservative instincts would stand back and let them do what they do best — pursuing excellence, and running a rational admissions policy.
As Nigel Farage argued in a recent TV interview, Willetts would do better to focus his energy on improving schools in the state sector (and his colleague Michael Gove is having a good go at it), so that bright kids from poor backgrounds could have a better chance at “A” Levels and university entrance. We used to have grammar schools, which exactly fulfilled this purpose. But far from celebrating the fine job that grammar schools did, we saw the leftist levellers and Luddites sweeping grammar schools away, and creating “bog standard” comprehensives in the name of fairness and equality. But like so much that the left does, the effect was the exact opposite of what was intended.
Is the present system “fair”? It may not be fair that some children are born smarter than others, but no amount of social engineering will alter the fact. It’s simply not in our gift to create a totally “fair” world, much as we might like to. But we should at least be able to prepare our children to make the best of the world as it is, and to do the best they can do. That’s your responsibility, David, and it seems to me that you’re failing to deliver.