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Fat cats are fed while thin ones receive rations

Stand a fat man next to a thin one and it tells you more about both than if they stood alone. The technical term for this is juxtaposition, a word much loved by the theorists who abound in any discipline that culminates in the word "studies" - try media, cultural, film. But the principle is quite simple: big looks bigger if it's next to little, and vice versa. This maxim applies just as much to education as elsewhere.

So for "fat" read the recent TES headline "`Stark inequalities' laid bare in report". The story underlined how unequal the allocation of university places in Britain still is, with a few elite - mostly fee-paying - schools and colleges accounting for a big chunk of the Oxbridge intake each year.

Thin, on the other hand, is represented by another headline in the same edition: "Threat to surge in demand for HE access courses". This story concerns the huge rise in fees for adult students who missed out on university and want the chance to put that right now. Many of these learners, the piece says, are from the most deprived sections of the community - people whose only realistic chance of getting into one of those high-achieving private schools would be through the door marked "tradesmen".

Of course, it's hardly news that those at the more privileged end of society tend to dominate when it comes to taking up places at "top" universities. But figures from the Sutton Trust, which produced the report in question, really do put it into stark relief. Over a three-year period, four independent schools, plus the prestigious Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge - where many of the offspring of the university faculty study for their A-levels - accounted for more places at Oxbridge than 2,000 state schools combined.

Meanwhile, penny-pinching at the other end continues. The adult learning grant has been axed and the fee concessions for most adult students on benefits - what the Government insultingly calls "inactive" benefits - removed. Other large increases in fees are planned. Groups hit hard include women, the disabled and ethnic minorities. As Joy Mercer, director of education policy at the Association of Colleges, puts it: "People receiving these types of benefits just can't afford to pay hundreds of pounds out of their own pocket for courses."

So what does this juxtaposing tell us? Once, we might have said that it simply confirmed the idea of the Conservatives being the "nasty" party. We look after our own, and if you're not in that category you can bugger off. But aren't things supposed to be different now that we are "all in it together"? Certainly, the rhetoric has changed; it's inclusion rather than exclusion that we hear about from the Tories these days, in education as with much else.

Could it be that they simply don't know what they are doing? By this I mean that they lack empathy with many of those they govern. Many in the Cabinet have had the most traditional of upper-class upbringings. David Cameron might say "call me Dave", but we still can't help recalling that his formative years were spent at Eton and Oxford.

Recently, I had to tell some benefit-claiming students that they would have to pay pound;100 more for their Access course than they were expecting. How much this meant to them was evident from the looks on their faces - and the fact that it took them many weeks to gather this relatively small sum.

Dietary orthodoxy tells us fat means bad and thin means good. But when it's an educational metaphor it doesn't quite work like that. If our Government really is serious about equality of opportunity in further and higher education, surely they should not be so energetically planning to put the "thinnest" members of our community on starvation rations?

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a college in London.

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