Simon Hughes, in his new role as 'Access Tsar' (I know...) has produced another assault in the integrity of higher education. The proposal is simple: force universities charging over £6,000 under the new fees regime to "tackle the admissions gap" and "take on a fair proportion of state school students." To enforce this, Mr Hughes proposes putting new regulations on university admissions onto the statute book to bring them into line. Such a move against university independence must be strenuously resisted.
To deal with an obvious point first, what constitutes a "fair" proportion of state school pupils? A meritocrat might suggest that a "fair" proportion is the proportion that can pass the entrance procedures. Not Mr Hughes, however. His conception of a fair proportion, shared by the sort of people who demand all women shortlists and other forms of positive discrimination, is to have university intakes "reflect society" in the number of state-educated pupils they take in.
There's nothing inherently wrong with wanting the make up of a given group more closely resemble the broader society from which they are drawn (although there is little to suggest it is inherently right), but simply trying to legislate that it be so, regardless of actual levels of attainment by state-educated pupils, demonstrates clearly the terrible temptations laid before the overseers of state education, and their consequences. For the fact that universities are not admitting a representative proportion of state-educated students is not their fault, it is the fault of state schools.
Let me explain. In a system untouched by political meddling, everyone knows where the goalposts are. Employers know what they want, and universities, colleges and apprenticeships work towards that, or towards academic ideals of their own. Schools know that they have to work towards these standards if they are going to be successful in getting their pupils into higher education. Everyone knows what must be achieved and has no option but to work towards that goal.
Of course, in a totally private system many people would be disadvantaged by background or circumstance, and this is where state education comes in. The purpose of state education is to ensure that all children, regardless of background or financial circumstance, have the chance to fulfil their academic or vocational potential and achieve the same high standards as more fortunate children.
However, somewhere along the line, those in charge of state education started to veer off course. Attainment fell, social mobility began to stagnate and the relative advantage of private education began to increase. The reasons for this are the cause of much debate, but in my opinion it was the advent of comprehensive education combined with 'trendy teaching' in the state sector, while the private and what remained of the selective sector retained more traditional, effective teaching methods. The 'why' isn't vital to this piece: that is vital is how those responsible for state education responded once it started to fall behind. Rather than altering their manifestly failing methods, to which many teachers had developed an ideological attachment, it occurred to state educators that their connexion to the state offered an alternative: move the goalposts. This has manifested itself in a couple of ways.
The first is the concept of 'value-added', whereby the League Table position (or perhaps in future even the grades) of public sector schools dealing with 'disadvantaged' groups such as ethnic minorities and the poor are inflated to represent how well educators think they did as poor or black children. This approach is outlined and criticised effectively in this article over on Spiked!, under the sub-heading "Defensive Over Standards". In short, it represents the idea that a C or worse is to an ethnic minority or poor child as an A is to a 'privileged' child. It allows teachers and schools whose methods are producing woefully sub-standard results to stand back and go "Yes, it isn't brilliant, but given that we only had black children to work with didn't we do well?"
It is an utterly abhorrent, borderline bigoted approach to the education of the disadvantaged, whereby the state education sector attempts to duck the difficulties of teaching the disadvantaged by dressing up poor results as good ones. This is a system that places the image of the education providers (schools, teachers and their unions) over the actual results of the consumers (the poor pupils), because saying that a C 'counts as' an A doesn't mean that it makes a child as employable as someone who actually got one. The children receive the same poor grades they used to receive, but the new system makes providers look better.
This approach runs into problems, however, once the children leave school. Sure, the teachers and school might be patting each other on the back for providing excellent 'value-added' results, but out in the real world employers and universities are looking at a string of poor grades as... well, as a string of poor grades. With state-educated school leavers not coming up to standard, universities draw an increasing proportion of their intake from public schools. This suggests that private schools are providing their students with an education that better prepares them for university.
How do state educators respond to this? By acknowledging that their standards are not up to scratch and seeing what lessons they can learn from the private sector? Not on your life. Rather, they move once again to lower the crossbar, courtesy of Simon Hughes' recommendations. Instead of fixing state schools, they simply want to force good universities to take pupils who have not achieved sufficient grades to get in fairly. Cosmetically, this will look like achievement. The government will be able to say that "more students from disadvantaged backgrounds are going to university than ever before." Yet these children will not be adequately prepared for rigorous academic courses. As I have written before, simply placing someone into a university does not guarantee that they will succeed. The 'graduate dividend' is not a product of going to university per se, it is a product of getting a good degree in a sought after subject and then getting a high-earning job.
I wrote at length in the previous article about how those on the left have misunderstood the advantages of Higher Education to the detriment of state pupils, and I won't repeat those arguments here. Yet it is nonetheless true that even if the crossbar into university is lowered (and perhaps we'll see 'value-added' degrees in future), the crossbar for entering good employment - especially in an increasingly competitive, globalised world - will not have shifted, at least not downwards. These children, showered with illusory 'value-added' rewards by a state education establishment unwilling to face up to its failings, will find themselves unready for the brutal realities of the job market. Those who have followed a path of rigorous standards and high achievement will always (rightly) have the advantage. What will Mr Hughes and his ideological bedfellows do then? Another legislative solution, another Equalities Act, to force employers to hire weaker candidates?
Children who go to private school are 'privileged', but it is not simply a matter of money. Money can buy fine grounds, good teachers, cricket pavilions and sports equipment, but it is not fundamental to academic success. No, the principle advantage enjoyed by a privately educated child is that their teachers cannot cheat. They can't blame their circumstances, they can't lean on the state and regulators to conjure false achievements. Unlike state schools (although the Gove reforms might change this), private schools know that their survival depends on providing an excellent academic education. They don't indulge the fashionable nonsense that has wrought such havoc on the state sector because, unlike the recipients of state services, the customers of private schools can very easily up sticks and leave.
Mr Hughes is right to think that the relative dearth of state educated pupils in our finest higher education establishments is a problem, but he has arrived at entirely the wrong solution. If he persists in forcing universities to take substandard pupils, they will not retain their current world-class standing: that standing is entirely connected to their intake procedures. Instead of castigating universities for insisting on excellence, he should turn his fire on a state education system that has failed to insist on it for far too long.