Any half-awake student of politics can answer the following question: what is the Coalition's big idea? At everyopportunity David Cameron has hammered home the point that government must step back from telling institutions and the professions how to do their jobs. Decentralisation of decision-making is their mantra: the Big Society, if it means anything at all, is based on their proposition that that the man in Whitehall really doesn't know best.
Yet last week Whitehall spewed out an improbably long list of instructions to "The Director of Fair Access", telling him exactly how he should do his job of ensuring that British universities increase their openness to all would-be students, from whatever backgrounds. This almost interminable letter, consisting of no fewer than 38 paragraphs of instructions, is signed by Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Business and David Willetts, the Conservative Minister for Universities.
Its timing is not coincidental: it emerged in the week that Cambridge University revealed that it would be increasing its tuition fees, from 2012, to the maximum permissible of £9,000 per annum, and just as Nick Clegg was facing a hostile audience of students in a BBC debate on the introduction of sharply increased fees – fees which the Liberal Democrats had sworn to abolish. So the Deputy Prime Minister tried to fend off a questioner who accused him of being "either stupid, mad or malicious" by saying that universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, "can't charge £9,000 unless they're given permission to do so. And they're only going to be given permission to do so if they can prove that they can dramatically increase the number of people from poorer and disadvantaged backgrounds who presently aren't going to Oxford and Cambridge." I think Mr Clegg must have meant the exact opposite, but one can forgive the Liberal Democrat leader for becoming a little flustered in the face of such insults.
Yet in attempting to mollify those who feel betrayed by the Liberal Democrats, the Coalition is not just breaking its wider pledge to allow our national institutions more independence and autonomy: it is actually attempting to increase political control of the universities' admissions process at precisely the same time as it is reducing, by up to 80 per cent, the teaching grants it bestows on them. Not surprisingly, the leading universities regard this as no sort of bargain at all.
What the Government really wants, it is clear, is for our leading universities to offer applicants from poorer backgrounds places on the basis of GCSE and A-level results which would be a cause for rejection if achieved by children from better-off families. The problem is that no university would dare to make such a policy transparent and explicit, because it would almost certainly be liable to lawsuits seeking redress via anti-discrimination legislation – a most piquant paradox in the circumstances. This, in part, is why Professor Steven Schwartz's immensely thorough report on "Fair Admissions to Higher Education", commissioned in 2003 by the last Labour government, stated expressly that: "Applicants should be assessed as individuals: it is not appropriate to treat one applicant automatically more or less favourably by virtue of his or her background, school or college."
The vital truth is that such universities as Oxford and Cambridge have for many years been doing their utmost to attract applications from comprehensive schools, whose pupils are indeed scandalously unrepresented in those great halls of learning. The professors in charge of admissions will tell you that they will always give the benefit of any doubt to the applicant from the state sector, rather than one competing for the same place from an independent school. As Professor Mary Beard said last week: "I've taught in Cambridge for 25 years and there's never been a sense that what we were looking at is anything other than potential."
Yet what such academics will never do – and should never do – is accept an applicant who they believe will find it very difficult to cope with the academic demands to which he or she will be subjected. It is no exaggeration to say that they fear they would have suicides on their hands.
Of course, this is not just about pastoral concern for potential students. As another educationalist pointed out last week, "The typical top university offer based on A-level grades of three A grades is more than mere educational machismo. It is an indication of the point at which the bottom rung of the course is set. Such universities already complain about the amount of remedial work needed in some subjects in the first year, even for candidates who have met their offer."
The Coalition appears completely uninterested in such arguments. It wants to improve what it calls "social mobility" and regards the leading universities as a means to that end. As Amol Rajan observed in a magisterial essay in these pages yesterday: "A system founded on the idea of intellectual elitism has been recast as a vehicle for mass participation. We have gone from a system founded on the principle that university is for the brightest, regardless of background, to one in which university is for all, regardless of ability."
It is true that those who have gone to independent schools have been fortunate enough to receive, in most but by no means all cases, a better secondary education than the vast majority within the maintained sector. Thus, while our state schools have been moving down the international educational league measured by annual comparative studies from the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the same tables show that the British independent sector produces outstanding results. The gap between the quality of private and public educational provision in the UK is, indeed, a disgrace. It does not exist to anything like the same extent, or sometimes even at all, in other countries with both forms of school (ie, everywhere except Cuba and North Korea).
If, as we are told, two-fifths of state-school pupils fail to achieve even a C grade in Maths and English GCSE what that means is that 40 per cent of 16 year olds are leaving full-time education achieving neither a basic level of literacy, nor the ability to work out a household budget. That is the real educational scandal in this country, not that universities are refusing to lower their standards to meet government objectives for "social mobility".
Vince Cable would doubtless argue that he is not talking about getting those on the borderline of literacy into our great universities (although some employers would argue that even many of those coming out of tertiary education seem unable to compose a job application): he would claim that Oxford and Cambridge are failing to make sufficient allowances for the academic potential of state-school applicants and that if they did so, they would generate even better degree results.
Let us assume that is a sincere belief, and that Dr Cable's objective is not merely to force such universities into taking a "more socially representative" mix of pupils, regardless of academic results, and regardless of the damage that would do to their ability to compete with the likes of Yale and Harvard in what is an international market. In that case he would need to prove that those whose secondary education had been in the state sector went on to outperform those educated privately.
As it happens, the Sutton Trust, which works tirelessly to improve "social mobility" within education, has recently produced what it sees as the necessary evidence. Yet its claim that students from the state sector perform better at degree level is based on statistics which make no distinction between the stand-ards of the universities, or of the courses they provide, even though it accepts that pupils from independent schools are more likely to go to tougher universities with more demanding courses.
It has to be a bit silly to assume an equivalence between a first-class degree in physics from Cambridge and a first-class degree in, for example, baking technology from London South Bank University.
In 2006, a more rigorous attempt to analyse results within Oxford and Cambridge was produced by Professors McCrum, Brundin and Halsey. After charting the outcomes over a 25-year period, they discovered that the undergraduates' A-level results had been exactly predictive of their performance at degree level, with no significant deviation caused by whether they had previously been educated within the private sector, or not. The only difference, oddly, was that while Oxford male science undergraduates from the state sector did slightly better than their privately-educated colleagues, in Cambridge it was the privately educated scientists who outperformed their contemporaries from state schools. The overall conclusion to be drawn from this research was that Oxford and Cambridge had been very fair and skilful in their admissions procedures.
They are, therefore, right to be offended – and even outraged – by the suggestion that they would better do their job as guardians of two of the world's greatest educational institutions, if they would only obey the Government's demands that they worry less about setting the very highest standards – and think more about saving the blushes of the Liberal Democrats and digging Nick Clegg out of a hole of his own making.
It would serve the Government right if Oxford and Cambridge and others among the elite Russell Group of Universities eventually decided that they would be better off if they raised all their funds privately, in return for the ability to tell the politicians to get lost. After all, isn't that what David Cameron's big idea is all about?