A friend who has settled in Britain after many years in various other European countries offered this observation about the row over whether or not the Government chief whip called a Downing Street policeman “a pleb”: “All those other countries have just as much in the way of a class structure – the difference here is that people talk about it all the time. In fact, it is an obsession.”
That explains why significant political figures in this country are given jobs specifically designed to address this matter. For example, there is not just the beefed-up Office of Fair Access, which threatens our universities with fines if they fail to increase their intake of undergraduates from what would once have been called “working-class” homes. There is the Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader, Simon Hughes, accorded the title of “Advocate for Access"; he argues that as the privately educated (of which he is an example) amount to 7 per cent of the school population, they should be allowed only 7 per cent of university places. The fact that the private sector accounts for 15 per cent of all A-level entries and 33 per cent of those gaining three A grades does not strike Hughes as an argument against his idea.
Then there is the altogether more substantial figure of Alan Milburn, the former Labour cabinet minister now accorded by the Coalition the title of “Social Mobility Tsar” – although the Russian Imperial title seems an odd one to apply to his role. The Romanovs were not noted advocates of social mobility. Anyway, this week Milburn is producing a report with proposals which are designed to “dramatically increase the number of disadvantaged pupils going on to Britain’s top universities”.
According to leaks of it granted to a couple of newspapers, Milburn will say that “study after study shows that for all the efforts the universities have made, they aren’t properly recognising potential and aptitude in who they admit to university”. I don’t think that Milburn can be saying that our lecturers and professors are hopeless at telling who are the best of the candidates available to them: he knows perfectly well that the leading universities are fixated by the idea of selecting the most promising, regardless of background. As Mary Beard (no Tory) recently pointed out: “I’v e taught in Cambridge for 25 years and there’s never been a sense that what we were looking at is anything other than potential.” Indeed, in 2006, Professors McCrum, Brundin and Halsey charted the outcome of degrees over a 25-year period at Oxford and Cambridge, and found that the students’ A-level results had been exactly predictive of their degree level, with no significant deviation caused by whether or not they had been privately educated.
What Milburn does say is that far too many schools in the state sector do not have the highest aspirations for their pupils, and as a result the pupils do not gain the grades necessary to get in to the better universities. His report will assert: “The principal reason... is not money, it’s qualifications.” This is a welcome change of tone from that promoted by the former Cambridge undergraduate Simon Hughes, who seems to think that his alma mater should abandon the disinterested pursuit of academic excellence and even meritocracy, in favour of the crudest imaginable form of social engineering.
Yet Milburn still demands that the top universities offer lower entry requirements for pupils from poorly performing schools. It’s perfectly true that to get three As at a bad school is a greater achievement than getting them at a top school, but the problem is that three As mark the base level which Russell Group Universities expect in order for the student to be able to cope with the courses offered: if they take “disadvantaged” students with three Cs, for example, they are going to be letting themselves in for a whole load of student misery, if not suicides.
Milburn is going to suggest that these top universities be offered inducements (via the taxpayer) to take on such students. This might also be a retrograde step. A lengthy feature in The Times last week by a former Oxford student revealed that not only are state-school students now in a majority at her old university, they seem – unlike in her day – to have greater self-esteem than the privately educated ones (who are on the whole slightly embarrassed about being part of the fee-paying class). Yet if it were known that students from less affluent backgrounds were habitually admitted with lower grades, or even because the university had been bribed to take them, what would that do for their sense of worth and achievement?
Above all, we might question just how socially immobile Britain actually is. A 2009 paper by the Oxford Mobility Study (from the university’s Marxist-influenced sociology department) stated that: “ In absolute terms, there is considerable upward mobility (14 per cent of those of unskilled manual background managed to get into socio-economic classes 1 and 2) and also downward mobility (more than 10 per cent of those from class 1 skidded down to classes 6 and 7).” Or, in other words, Britain might be class-obsessed, but the idea that it is socially immobile is itself a form of prejudice.