Professor Les Ebdon, described as the government’s higher education access adviser, wants to set challenging targets for top universities to “create a more socially balanced student body”. Ably abetted by Vince Cable, he is putting social engineering and socialist theory ahead of academic standards. He is damaging education, and threatening standards in our remaining world-class universities, and so undermining our economic future. He is driving up drop-out rates, already at eye-watering levels. He is squandering the education budget. He is damaging the life-chances not only of deserving high achievers who will be denied places, but also of more average students who would do better with more modest targets and more vocationally-oriented training. His is a lose-lose-lose policy.
His underlying assumption is that all kids have more or less equal potential, so all have an equal “right” to go to Oxbridge, and will perform as well as their peers when they get there. Merely to state the implicit assumption is to refute it.
OK. I’m going to be provocative. I’ve got my tin hat on. I’ve touched on this issue before, although I make no apology for returning to it as it’s right there in the news agenda. Last time I was widely attacked by the leftist diary columns and the green ink brigade (who seemed to reply to what they thought I probably meant, but not to what I’d actually said — if indeed they read beyond the first few lines).
So can I appeal to critics on the left — let’s have less of the personal abuse, more cool analysis. If you think there’s a flaw in my assumptions or my logic, please let me know. So far, no one has.
Let’s start with some incontrovertible propositions.
Amongst human populations, there is a range of intelligence, as there is a range of just about all mental and physical characteristics. Some people are brighter than others. Always have been. That flies in the face of socialist theory, but it’s demonstrably true.
And intelligence, at least in part, is heritable. Bright parents tend (not always, but often) to have bright kids.
Bright parents also (not always, but often) tend to have successful careers and higher-paid jobs.
If you accept these basic ideas, you have to agree that when universities select on strict academic merit, then statistically we should expect students from higher-income families to be over-represented, compared to the population at large. And this is exactly what we find — and exactly what sticks in Prof Ebdon’s craw.
So by insisting on “more social balance”, the good Professor is effectively calling for less-able candidates to be preferred over more able candidates. Far from “accessing the full talent pool”, as he puts it, he wants to send universities fishing in the wrong part of the ocean. We will get fewer excellent students, and more less good.
And let’s be clear: we’ve done no favours here to less able students who are sent to a challenging educational environment, where they may struggle to cope, and are more likely to drop out. This is positioned as “inclusiveness”. But it’s actually damaging their prospects. They would have done better with courses more suited to their abilities and career prospects.
And before you lefties get out the green ink, let me be clear about what I’m not saying.
I’m not saying that all low-income people are less bright. I’m certainly not saying that all wealthy people are bright — we can all think of counter examples. I’m not saying that being well-off makes you bright — though being bright may well help you to become well-off. I’m absolutely not saying that kids from a poorer background can’t get on in life (indeed I pretty nearly make that category myself). Nor am I saying that the children of less-bright parents are necessarily less bright — just that statistically, that’s a more likely outcome.
Of course there are genuinely bright children from poorer homes, whether or not from less bright parents. The bitter irony is this: that in the most perverse educational decision of the twentieth century, we more or less abandoned grammar schools, which had been the major highway taking bright youngsters from poor backgrounds to university, high achievement and worthwhile careers. We kicked away the ladder, and we did it in the name of inclusiveness and social engineering. It failed then, and it damaged those it was meant to help. Now Professor Ebdon is trying it all over again.
The Tory party promised a cull of the quangos. It can start with the Office of Fair Access. It’s time for the government to get out of the university admissions business altogether, and leave it to the Universities themselves.