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.