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Luther King and Laura Spence are related

WHAT does a small Bible belt town in the early 1980s have to tell us about admissions to elite universities in Britain in the year 2000? Surprisingly, quite a lot.

Arriving in Selma, Alabama, to teach at the local college back in 1982 I was struck by the fact that the local police force almost exactly mirrored the racial composition of the community at large: 5050 black and white.

Yet fewer than 20 years earlier the bull-necked officers of the then all-white force had appeared on the world's television screens clubbing and gassing the town's blacks for having the temerity to demand the basic right of a vote.

How had this remarkable turnaround happened? The answer lies in the determination of the United States government to right the wrong that Martin Luther King and others had made sure they could no longer ignore.

A series of measures forced through in the teeth of white opposition had put blacks on the electoral register, desegregated schools and enforced strict quotas in public-sector jobs - the police included - from which half the population had hitherto been so totally excluded. True, such a broad-brush approach had led to some unfairness and inefficiency. But that was a small price to pay for rolling back the frontiers of an injustice which had existed in the Southern states for 300 years.

The on-going brouhaha about admissions to Oxbridge and other elite universities might seem small beer compared to the titanic struggles of the American civil rights movement. But nonetheless there is a wrong to be righted here too. And that can only begin to happen if there is a real (as opposed to pretend) commitment from the Government and the universities themselves.

The facts have been much aired in recent weeks. Oxford and Cambridge still select around 50 per cent of their undergraduates from a private school sector that educates not much more than 5 per cent of the population in total. A number of other colleges in the so-called ivy league also have similarly skewed intakes.

The universities say they want to rectify this. That they have been making considerable efforts to do so. But how serious are they? How much do they really want to change?

At the moment they certainly put effort into publicity. In the wake of recent events both Oxford and Cambridge have sent out thousands of glossy brochures declaring their willingness to take in "the best", irrepective of origins. There is also much good-intentioned outreach work via free summer schools and such schemes as the Target Schools project.

The problem is that this sort of thing has been going on for years now with only minimal benefits. Ten years ago Oxford offered 52 per cent of its places to pupils from the independent schools. Today the figure stands at 47 per cent. Five per cent in 10 years hardly amounts to a social revolution.

Surely if they were serious in the way that the US federal government had to be serious in the 60s and 70s, they would declare that in future places were to be allocated in direct proportion to the numbers studying in each sector? State schools account for 93.1 per cent of the pupils. Thus 93.1 per cent of offers would go to state schools.

All right, one can see that this might be a bit of a shock to the system all at once - although it is unlikely that, properly handled, it would lead to any decline in academic standards; the current crop of state school undergraduates do just as well as their fellows from the public schools.

So let us be reasonable. Let's say that they should set a quota of 80 per cent state intake by the year 2005. That would still disproportionately favour private schools. But it would also be considerably fairer than what happens at the moment.

If they wanted to badly enough our top universities could do this. But of course they won't. Apart from anything else, how could they withstand the howls of protest which would instantaneously drop from the privileged lips of those no longer able to effectively buy places for their children?

And the Government - how much does it want equality? Not enough, one suspects. Attempting - in the most inept way - to gain electoral advantage from the Laura Spence affair is one thing. Taking on the great and the good in the interests of equality of opportunity and social justice quite another. On higher education we must surely judge New Labour on deeds, not words. And tuition fees of pound;1,000 per year are hardly the tool of social inclusion.

No one is clubbing inner-city teenagers back down the steps of Magdalen or Clare colleges. Their exclusion is more subtle than that. And given that, the prospect of Blunkett and Blair doing anything that would really make a difference about inequality in elite university admissions is likely to remain a remote one indeed.

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