Gleam on, you Govan spires

THE motorway bus ploughed on through the dark towards Oxford . . . not quite Ralph Glasser, but what was a Govan boy doing among the gleaming spires? Our school sends about the national average of pupils on to higher education, with the occasional Oxbridge candidate. Now a college had invited us to see what efforts they made to attract top state comprehensive pupils.

There was much that was seductive, from the stunning architecture, to the silver grapefruit squeezer at breakfast, the kindly porters, tea in the senior common room, wild boar for dinner - everywhere an assurance, a confidence, a certainty of manner.

Departments reported on their admissions procedures: academic ability, enthusiasm for the subject, willingness to engage in discussion, a sense of personal purpose - all were important attributes. There were tests, grammar in French, problem-solving in maths, English criticism, but only when several criteria were met would offers be extended.

Interviews seemed no more unpredictable than in the rest of life, and generally I was convinced that top comprehensive students, keen to enter Oxford, would stand a fair chance.

What did make an impact was the implicit assumption by my hosts that our top students would all want to go to Oxbridge. The otion that Scottish students could find appropriate courses and degrees at home universities seemed perplexing to some dons. A psychology tutor talked of the temptation (rejected) to have more than two students per tutorial, and I thought of the 600 or so in the Ordinary psychology class at Glasgow who made do with remote control TV lectures. No Socratic dialogue for them.

Gordon Brown was, briefly, a Govan boy too, though our paths didn't meet - sons of the manse didn't watch the Bens at Tinto Park - but his recent spat with Oxford over entry begs more questions than answers.

Equalising conditions of study at different universities, helping able working-class students via worthwhile grants, improving open access to Government jobs for all graduates - all these have more bearing on challenging the nomenklatura than championing one rejected medical applicant.

One issue of the Government's own making is that lecture rooms increasingly resemble charter jets as full-fee English students jostle with up-front part fee or end-loaded native students, or even, some might say, free-loading European students, just as the person in the next seat on the Malaga flight might have paid the full fare, or gone stand-by. Now there's a problem worth addressing.

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