University admissions: aspiration denied

I went to King Edward VI Grammar School, Southampton (but there were no girls there then)

Yesterday the press carried another depressing story about universities selecting students based on parental income and background, rather than academic achievement, as they seek to appease this Coalition government over what they call “fair access” — though of course what they mean is profoundly unfair access.  They mean quotas.  They mean “positive discrimination”.  They mean social engineering.

I guess it all started with Gordon Brown in 2000, and the fuss about Laura Spence, an excellent student who was refused a place at Oxford despite having achieved top grades in ten GCSEs and four A levels.  Gordon Brown was ignoring the facts to score a cheap and mendacious political point.  He was arguing that Oxford admissions were class-based.  He failed to note that rather a lot of excellent students apply to Oxford, and it can’t take all of them.  He was ignoring the fact that grade inflation under Labour (and before) meant that rather a lot of pupils were getting good grades.  And he failed to respect the right of Universities, as independent institutions, to make their own calls.

The left used to criticise ancient universities for their reliance on interviews, as dons sought to select applicants whom they thought (rightly or wrongly) would do well, and reflect credit on their institutions.  Admission, they argued, should be on merit, it should not be subjective.  But now, ironically, they demand equally iffy assessments based on social background, and ideological inferences about the influence of home backgrounds.  This is all based on the implicit assumption that all children are created equal, and that if one performs less well than another it must be down to deprivation and lack of opportunity.  All have won, and all must have prizes.

We expected that a change of government would see the end of this nonsense, and a return to an objective, exam-based assessment.  But not a bit of it.  “Fair Access” is all the rage.  We even have an “Office of Fair Access”: http://www.offa.org.uk/.  And while this nonsense is driven primarily by our distinguished Lib-Dem Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (himself a beneficiary of a “privileged” education), Conservative Ministers — especially David Willetts — must take much of the blame.

So imagine my astonishment when I saw a column by David Willetts in the Telegraph of June 28th.   “The right of universities to choose their own students is enshrined in law.  That is right.  It protects the quality of our universities by stopping political meddling”.

But he himself is challenging that right: he himself is meddling.

He makes this claim in response to the “scandal” of universities lowering entry criteria for foreign students who pay higher fees (although they are simply making a rational economic decision in the face of the funding régime imposed by meddling politicians).  But it is, simply, preposterous.  I’ve always thought of Willetts as honest and straightforward, but surely he must know he’s talking nonsense?  How could he write it with a straight face?  Or was it written by a staffer or PR person with a limited knowledge of the facts?

The government is saying that it’s OK to compromise standards to achieve dodgy social engineering objectives, but it’s wrong to do so to balance the books.

There is indeed a social bias in university intake, and this is in part a reflection of heredity.  But it is also a terrible indictment of our state school system.  My parents could never have afforded private schools, but I had the privilege of going to King Edward VI Grammar School in Southampton (now gone private), and subsequently to Cambridge on a State Scholarship.  It has been said many times but bears repeating: the bien pensants of the left have kicked away that avenue of advancement for bright kids from poorer backgrounds.  Then they weep crocodile tears over the failure of those same kids to get to Oxbridge.

Willetts should scrap the social engineering, and join Michael Gove’s campaign to reintroduce rigour to the schools.  That way lie both fairness and excellence.

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9 Responses to University admissions: aspiration denied

  1. I went to Christ’s Hospital and Pembroke College, Cambridge. It cost me my adolescence and early twenties. During that time I spent most of my time doing homework and I suffered a lot in all sorts of ways. It was in no way fun and I had a “Black Dog” depression most of the time. We were taught to “Fear God, Honour the King and Love the Brotherhood.” All of these excellent sentiments which we absorbed from the age of 9 are now completely out of date. I learned Greek, Latin and Ancient History through fear. I visited a high Security Prison recently and felt instantly at home.
    But it made a man of yer.

    All the time I felt terribly jealous of normal people who met in the local park, smoking and flirting and dancing and having a laugh. They did little or no homework, lived untroubled lives and left school to get a nice job where they stayed, happily married, until retirement. It was a life free from fear, full of humour and good temper and with decent prospects.

    The trouble is that we – and David Willets – don’t know where the real joy of life lies. We have made the most enormous sacrifices and assume that everyone ought to have the “right” to be like us. I honestly think that for the vast majority of voters, nothing could be farther from the truth!

    • Derek says:

      Were you a boarder? I think that can be too much for some students, or where the school does not get the balance right between study and fun. Local day grammar schools are the best for most bright pupils.

  2. Sue says:

    There’s only one way to gauge an honest politician Roger and that is by his/her actions. The only ones I trust are the ones such as yourself who have come forward guided by their consciences, spoken the truth and then acted upon it.

    There has to be selection based on academic ability or we can’t hope to compete with countries like Japan. The Grammar School was an effective tool for the poorest of children who excelled academically, as a path to the best education.

  3. Phil Richmond says:

    Roger – Michael Gove at least is trying to move education in the right direction. However we really need a Conservative PM who has prinicples and a spine to drive this forward. Therefore Cameron has to go!
    Grammar schools are the way forward. Only our politicians cant see it!

    • AND Secondary Moderns – small, everyone lives in the same area, they accept people for their future leadership of local society and the standards are reasonable and not excessive. Above all, they produce polite, sensible, accepted people who will actually get their hands dirty and work hard for their own part of the country.
      Our local Sec Modern (Lincolnshire) has much better GCSE results than our huge floundering Comprehensive. And then of course there is Sixth Form at the Lincolnshire Grammar School for those who succeed in GCSEs.

  4. Hugh Eveleigh says:

    Well said. Alas, it’s been said before by other sane and reasonable people but like so many other obvious truths which are pushed aside and discarded as a result of political force, it has to be repeated until eventually someone in power realises the truth of the argument. If we politically manipulate our university entry (which the above outline reveals) than we are doomed. University acceptance has to be academically based. Ability has to be the main criterion. Social factors follow ability not the other way round.

  5. Pingback: David Willetts: You’re in a hole. Stop digging! | Roger Helmer MEP

  6. Pingback: David Willetts: You’re in a hole. Stop digging! –

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