Alan Ryan: Why are ministers such slow learners?

Before casual brutality gave way to political correctness, slow learners were known as the "educationally subnormal". I now see what the initials of the DfES really stand for - it is a department run by exceedingly slow learners. Consider Margaret Hodge. Six years ago, Nicholas Barr from the London School of Economics, appeared before the Commons Select Committee on Education, chaired by Mrs Hodge. He suggested, as he had for the past 10 years, that students should pay different tuition fees at different universities, to reflect the pay-offs they could expect from their studies. There ought to be an injection of market pressures into higher education.

Mrs Hodge was outraged; surely, she said, it was snobbish to suggest that one university was better than another. Now we have Mrs Hodge cheerfully maintaining that sensible students wouldn't touch most new universities with a bargepole. It can't, alas, be said that she gets it right even now. The object of trashing the new universities was to insist that students should pay more for courses at Oxford than at Luton, and to announce that the government would rig the market if people didn't behave. She hasn't yet learned that a market whose outcomes are dictated by ministers isn't a market at all.

Having decided to do Mrs Hodge's job for her, Charles Clarke displays the same departmental urge to get everything wrong. Even forgiving his ignorance of what medieval universities were actually about, his performance over OFFA - the so-called access regulator - is par for the course. OFFA is to be headed by Steven Schwartz, the vice-chancellor of Brunel, whose entire career has been outside the United Kingdom - in Texas and Australia - and whose comments to date suggest that he hasn't yet discovered how university admissions work in the UK.

He will be assisted by the recently-retired President of Harvard, Neil Rudenstine. I am a fan of both of them. Professor Schwartz admires the works of Robert Nozick, advocates freeing universities from state control and wants to stop the government from trying to run our lives for us. Why he is helping the government to interfere even more is not clear. We can only hope he's a Trojan Horse.

What Charles Clarke thinks Neil Rudenstine is going to tell Hefce is equally unclear; Harvard, like Princeton, where Professor Rudenstine was Provost for many years, operates affirmative action for the benefit of alumni children, athletes, the children of prospective donors and children from favoured localities in a fashion that not even Bristol University would contemplate.

In fact, the object of the exercise is utterly obscure. Unlike Charles Clarke, the admissions office at Oxford tried several years ago to discover why bright students at comprehensive schools who had done well at GCSE didn't apply to Oxford - or Cambridge - in the numbers you'd expect. The chief reason was that they feared they weren't good enough. Once they applied, they were fine. They got in in proportion to the numbers applying and to the extent they had trouble, it was in applying for hideously over-subscribed subjects. Contrary to Charles Clarke, the Brideshead image was irrelevant. Being close to family and friends mattered. But what mattered most was confidence.

And who eroded their confidence? The usual suspects - friends, family and teachers. Charles Clarke has begun to understand this, so what was going to be an outside body nagging everyone about their admissions procedures - which are already the subject of an agreement with the Quality Assurance Agency - is now to be a body nagging universities to persuade children from families who've never thought about university to have a go. It's a fraud.

Meanwhile, Mrs Hodge, in yet another attempt to ingratiate herself with students, has been urging Cambridge students to go out and encourage comprehensive school students to apply to Cambridge. They do, by the busload. They have been doing so for years. If the DfES wants more working-class children to apply to Russell Group - or indeed any other - universities, the only rational route is to start with nursery school and work forward; if that's too much like hard work, the only quick (and very partial) fix is to reintroduce the grants for living costs that Tory governments eroded and a Labour government abolished. The DfES probably will. In ten years or so, when the light finally dawns.

The writer is warden of New College, Oxford, and is currently on a year's sabbatical at Stanford University, California