The Government has gone to great lengths to restrict access to university. Where was Willetts's concern for the disadvantaged then?

The Universities Minister's professed concern for white working class boys is risible

Share

Almost three years after it was elected, I can’t pretend that the Coalition government has many achievements to its name.

But I think I’ve spotted one that’s been overlooked, namely the rapid progress it’s making towards a society in which virtually everyone belongs to a competing minority. By the time of the general election in 2015, millions of people will have been identified as a social issue and have their very own government policy.

Benefit claimants, single parents, the disabled, the elderly and the chronically sick: one minister or another will have claimed them and come up with a more or less painful solution to all their problems. Judging by past performance, the Government will also manage to blame them for their own predicament and require someone, preferably not ministers, to do something about it.

Obviously, this doesn’t apply to that very special minority of people with comfortable living standards who live in and around Chipping Norton. That’s because it’s everyone else’s fault, the amazing number of troublesome minorities the Government has discovered, and the latest group to be redefined in this way is working-class white boys.

Alarmed by a dramatic reduction in applications from this sub-section of the school population for college places – and I wonder how on earth that could have come about – the Universities minister, David Willetts, wants them to be treated like an ethnic minority. “I do worry about what looks like increasing underperformance by young men,” he has said.

Willetts believes that teenage white boys from a working-class background should be included as target groups for recruitment in access agreements, which universities have to sign in order to be allowed to charge higher fees. The Office for Fair Access is able to take into account ethnicity and social class, “so I don’t see why they couldn’t look at white, working-class boys,” Willetts told The Independent yesterday.

I suppose it’s a change to have working-class white boys as problem of the week – it’s usually black boys failing at school and getting involved in knife crime – but it’s also a convenient way of diverting attention from the real issue. Working-class boys have been under-performing at school for years, a fact that’s reflected in greater numbers of girls applying for university places. In some subjects, such as law, medicine and dentistry, they outnumber boys to a startling extent.

Now, though, demand for university places from both sexes is falling, just as critics said it would when the government introduced a steep hike in fees last October. Applications are down for the second year running but the slump is much greater among young men. It’s the “culmination of a decades-old trend in our education system which seems to make it harder for boys and men to face down the obstacles in the way of learning,” Willetts observed sadly. I rather like Willetts, who is affable and regarded in some quarters as suspiciously clever for a Tory. I can even imagine him shaking his head over the apparently inexplicable inability of boys to act in their own interests.

This is sticking-plaster stuff, a diversion from the fact that ministers have just made a chronic and well-known problem much worse. Of course, tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year are putting off applicants from working-class families, where there is no tradition of starting working life with huge debts. Would I have gone to university if I’d had the prospect of emerging with terrifying levels of repayments for the next couple of decades? Of course not, and I’d have missed an education that’s stood me in good stead for years.

There’s no doubt that the fees are exacerbating class divisions in education: entry rates for 18-year-olds from advantaged areas are three to four times higher than those from disadvantaged areas, according to Professor Les Ebdon, the director of the Office for Fair Access.

But the Government’s policy can’t be questioned, no matter how dire its effects, so working-class white boys have to be separated off and given special status. Then it’s the universities’ problem, not the Government’s, even if the analysis makes no sense: the problem of working-class boys’ under-performance starts long before the age of 18 or 19, when high achievers are thinking about heading to university. Dumping it in the lap of universities also risks discriminating against working-class girls who’ve worked hard at school and find themselves, unusually, among the better-off in this argument.

Under-representation in university applications is just the final stage in a lengthy process. The consequences of failing at school are dire, for individuals and society as a whole, as working-class boys from a variety of ethnic backgrounds fail to get qualifications, become teenage fathers, and, in some cases, end up in prison. The failures of the state-school system in this respect show up dramatically in the prison population, where 95 per cent of inmates are male.

Half of male prisoners have a reading ability at or below the level expected of an 11-year-old, and a staggering four-fifths have a writing ability at or below this level. Half have been excluded from school and have no qualifications. The same proportion are fathers, which means their problems with illiteracy and low achievement are likely to be passed on to the next generation.

Experts and politicians have spent years coming up with theories to explain these educational failures but the most obvious factor is poverty. Teenage boys from poor families tend not to value education, and their schools don’t have the resources to challenge so many connected problems. They also have competing models of masculinity, linked to sexual performance, conspicuous consumption and violence. Ofsted has identified the problem succinctly as the lure of the three Fs: fighting, football and fucking.

Getting more working-class kids into university is something I’m very keen on. But it shouldn’t be done by setting boys and girls from working-class backgrounds against each other, which is what Willetts’ proposal could end up doing. It’s a popular tactic under this Government, which has been picking off vulnerable minorities ever since it came to power in 2010. Once people have been divided up into competing groups, the Government can just sit back and watch as they fight for scarce resources.

Twitter: @polblonde

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Etch, a Sketch

Jane Merrick
 

Something wrong with the Conservative Party’s game plan

John Rentoul
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing