Give thanks for tanks in the quadrangles

12th November 2004 at 00:00
Power, as Mao noted, grows out of the barrel of a gun. So I was delighted to see that Michael Beloff, president of Trinity college, Oxford, thinks the Government has its tanks on Oxford's lawns. That is exactly where the tanks belong.

A report from the Sutton Trust, an educational charity, shows that every one of the 13 elite universities - Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, Bristol, Edinburgh, etc - has taken in more state-school pupils since Labour came to power in 1997. The proportion of admissions from the state sector has risen from 61 to 68 per cent. In all, an extra 5,900 state pupils have got to those universities each year. Does anyone seriously imagine this would have happened unless the universities had heard the rumble of tanks coming down the street? Yet it is not enough. Fee-charging schools account for less than 8 per cent of pupils. So why do they still get 32 per cent of the elite university places? Because they get better A-level results? Not entirely, according to the Sutton Trust. While 45 per cent of fee-charging pupils with 26 A-level points got to one of the 13 top universities, only 26 per cent of their state equivalents did so. So on the simplest measure, some 3,000 state-school pupils are missing from each cohort of admissions.

If you accept that fee-charging schools artificially inflate their pupils'

A-level grades - state-school pupils with lower grades do better at university - the figure is higher.

So let us have the tanks not only on the lawns but in lecture halls and common rooms. Let their guns blaze. Let the admissions tutors be taken away for re-education and the likes of Mr Beloff put on show trial. I write metaphorically, but the universities should count themselves lucky that they are facing nothing worse than Charles Clarke and threats of financial penalties if they fail to meet "benchmarks" for state-school admissions. In other countries and at other times, blood would run through the quadrangles.

Why does all this matter so much? After all, most of the 3,000 missing students get to other universities, which may provide just as good an education. No law of nature requires that all the best students attend Oxford, Cambridge or Bristol. Indeed, you could say that it is good thing that Sunderland or Plymouth have a wide ability mix. But my concern is with the continuation of fee-charging schools, creaming off a social and academic elite that has no parallel in any other industrialised country. If those children were inside the state sector, they would raise standards all round without detriment to their own performance.

Affluent parents fork out thousands of pounds because the schools guarantee access to elite universities and elite jobs. Those jobs provide the money and cultural capital that allow the next generation to attend the same schools. If we are to have social justice, and a less class-divided society, this cycle must be broken. It is politically unrealistic to abolish fee-charging or to dictate to employers whom they should recruit, entry to universities (largely financed from public funds) is where ministers can and should intervene.

I oppose new Labour on many things, but I do not agree that it is wholly without egalitarian ambition. No previous Labour government has got anywhere near tackling fee-charging schools, and I congratulate this one on its efforts. It is on those schools, rather than on the universities themselves, that the guns are trained. I am sorry you are caught in the crossfire, Mr Beloff. Hide under the high table and, with luck, it will all be over soon.

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman

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