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Mentioning education and brainpower in the same breath, these days, is definitely not PC. We are expected, it seems, to operate on the optimistic belief that anyone can do anything if they really try. Would that it were true. I should have been glad to have put in the effort to run as fast as Linford Christie, play the violin like Nigel Kennedy, or become as rich as Richard Branson, but sadly it was not in me.

We seem to have no difficulty in recognising the need to identify and develop talent when it comes to sport. Indeed, our lack of international success is causing us to pour millions into sporting academies to hone up the skills. But when it comes to braininess, which in its way is just as internationally competitive, and more important to the country paying its way in the world, we seem to be doing just the opposite.

Perhaps the difficulties involved in measuring intelligence have led us to suppose that it does not exist. Yet we all know people who find it enviably easy to get their heads round things while the rest of us, in varying degrees, struggle.

Or is it that the British psyche tends to be suspicious of those who are clever? "Too clever by half" is a celebrated put-down. Even now bright children are having to hide their talents for fear of being labelled swots. Some teachers seem reluctant to admit to parents that their sons and daughters are showing signs of being brainy.

New Labour, in its public pronouncements at least, seems to take the view that demonstrated ability is not all that important. Universities, which you would have thought would run on talent above all else, are being chided for not recruiting more students without qualifications. Yes, without qualifications. Since the message was delivered by Baroness Blackstone, the higher education minister, at the annual conference of the Higher Education Funding Council, it carries the hint that there may soon be financial incentives to do so.

This is already the reality in further education. Following Baroness Kennedy's report on widening access, the Further Education Funding Council is now proposing to pay extra money to colleges for taking in students with poor qualifications. This is the equivalent of investing more in my athletics training than, say, Linford Christie's, because I had run less fast. Paradoxically, it also reduces access because more money for Kennedy students within capped funding must mean fewer students in total.

Ambivalence about ability also seems to be confusing the Government on secondary education. On the one hand, it is proudly developing specialist schools in music, sport, modern languages and technology since, in its view, these require particular aptitudes. But, through some folk memory of old Labour, it is at the same time ruling out selection by ability, because it regards it as unfair. What the difference between aptitude and ability actually is here, the government is finding very difficult to explain.

Now it is surely right that we seek to give all children, irrespective of ability or background, a good start in life by bringing them up to specified levels of literacy and numeracy, and by introducing them, through the national curriculum, to the fundamental ways of making sense of the world. But beyond that should we not, to coin a phrase, enable all the flowers to bloom?

A commitment to excellence in education is no more elitist than it is in sport. What is important is that everyone should be able to progress as far as their talents will take them. In the case of sport this means opportunities for healthy exercise for us all, but for the gifted the chance to perform to the highest levels. In the case of education, it means a sound general introduction beyond which there are first-rate opportunities to develop brainpower to the fullest.

This almost certainly implies investing more heavily in the top universities and not trying to spread limited resources too thinly. It also implies picking out the students who have demonstrated through their previous attainment that they can hack it. That is, higher education must run on qualifications. Tampering with admissions requirements to correct supposed imbalances only diminishes the system. Imagine Glenn Hoddle's problems if in trying to put together a team to win the World Cup he had to even it up for social background and fit in a quota of players with two left feet.

Is there any hope of political correctness being set aside as far as higher education is concerned? Given the Government's sense of guilt over tuition fees, the rhetoric of widening access may be just too convenient. But, in my view, putting extraneous characteristics before ability is deeply damaging. Let us confront the issue of brainpower in education honestly and see where it takes us.

The writer is professor of policy research and director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Brunel University.