14th January 2011 at 00:00
Bar the rich to help the poor? Forget it. The answer to improved HE access lies nearer to home

Saturday is D-Day. Pupils hoping to start university this year must apply by tomorrow. The mood music is terrible. Competition for places has never been fiercer, graduate jobs never scarcer and student debt never higher. There is an inescapable impression that higher education opportunities, particularly for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, are narrowing.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man with a solution. Lib Dem Simon Hughes, the Government's spanking new adviser on higher education access, suggested this week that the way to get more bright state pupils into universities was to impose severe limits on the intake of privately educated ones. Restrict the rich and the poor will benefit. Simple. Unfortunately, it is, by a country mile, the most stupid and impractical education proposal a politician has advanced for some time. And it isn't as if the field is an under-populated one.

We all understand the attraction of being loudly principled on one issue when you have reneged on a pledge and shafted your supporters over another. But betrayal is no excuse for foolishness (FE Focus, page 1). Not only would Mr Hughes's plan undermine the principle of admission by merit and lead to an exodus of well-qualified students overseas, it totally misunderstands the problem.

It is true, according to research from the Sutton Trust last month, that students from comprehensives are likely to achieve better degrees than pupils from grammar or independent schools with similar A-level grades. So universities are right to take background into account when offering pupils a place. But judgments like these are best made by universities on a case-by-case basis. Crude quotas applied by Government would only spawn new injustices and wouldn't address the key issue.

Too few pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds go to university. But poor pupils with the necessary qualifications go on to higher education in almost exactly the same proportions as their well-heeled peers. The difference is small - only 1 or 2 per cent. In other words, universities are not cold-shouldering hordes of qualified disadvantaged pupils. They aren't there to admit. They don't make it to or through A-level. So being beastly to the independent sector won't make universities fairer, just dumber.

Universities should certainly be leaned on to make their admissions processes more transparent. Their refusal to reveal which subjects they blacklist, for instance, is arrogant and indefensible. But if Mr Hughes and the Government want to widen participation, they must address the problem where it lies - in schools. Raising the attainment and ambition of poor pupils is a difficult challenge, but if politicians are serious about tackling it they should start by diverting the millions of pounds they give to vice-chancellors to solve a problem they can't fix to the people who can - headteachers.


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