It was a mistake to cut the EMA. Mr Milburn should think about similar grants to improve social mobility

Alan Milburn has proposed that universities should be paid for taking on greater numbers of working-class students.

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The Independent Online

You can tell a lot about a country from the way it treats its rising stars, and I can’t help but feel that the Coalition would do well to remember that they can come from any walk of life.

The scrapping of the education maintenance allowance was a sign that those in power had forgotten that crucial fact, but the release of Alan Milburn’s report yesterday into widening access to higher education may yet go some way to rectifying what he himself called “a very bad mistake”.

I’d go so far as to call it an insult myself: a blinkered and careless swipe at the futures of disadvantaged young people. Social mobility is civilisation. That there is some chance that we might die in a slightly nicer bed than the one we are born in is what motivates us all. Closing down and obstructing routes to people who want to better themselves is, at best, fantastically stupid and, at worst, apocalyptic.

Milburn proposes a payment to universities that take on greater numbers of working-class students, which in principle is no bad thing. Bright children should be made a fuss of; educational institutions should seek them out. But they shouldn’t be paid to do so. There is every opportunity for this to become yet another box-ticking, number-crunching, quota-filling exercise that somehow manages to hoodwink the people it is supposed to be helping.

There was a time when working-class kids did make it to university. There’s a whole generation of them about to start collecting their pensions. They had grants: they were an optimistic investment in a better tomorrow for the rest of us. Because a society is only as strong as its weakest constituents, help them and you help us all.

That’s why whatever move Milburn makes will be so important. Our universities and our workplaces are suffering from a lack of diversity. What happens at the top of our country has almost no bearing on what’s going on at the bottom; we have all the stability of a spinning top, and our most hallowed halls are turning into finishing schools.

So why give the money straight to the universities? By all means, invest in them. But why not offer grants to those set on bettering themselves? That worked, didn’t it? It must have done, because I grew up in a nicer house than my parents did.

A lament for my Milan Big Mac

I’m alarmed to hear about a spat between two of my favourite things in the world this week, Prada and McDonald’s. The former has taken over the latter’s top spot in a posh shopping mall in Milan, and the latter is miffed about it. In fact, it is suing for more than €20m, claiming that it alone in the roll call of razzy names that dwell in the Galleria has been refused tenancy rights.

I know that mall well: often I have lamented that I can’t afford anything, allaying the sadness with a Quarter Pounder. That McDonald’s has fed the fortune-less there – an eyesore for the aesthetes more likely to be popping into Gucci than they are supersizing their lunch and watching the grease seep through its wrapper. Ciao bella, as they say.

Twitter: @harrywalker1