E Jane Dickson: It's fear of elitism that holds poor, bright kids back

The Saturday column
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The Independent Online

Can we stand any more head-clutching in Whitehall over the future of higher education? Would it help to remind bewildered bean counters of John Masefield's view that "there are few earthly things more beautiful than a university"? Maybe not. Certainly, there are few earthly things causing more of a headache to the Coalition. It's like watching the dogged, clunking embrace of those beetles who, having mated, must die, as Conservatives and Lib Dems attempt to keep their ideological ends up on the issues of access to and funding for universities.

This week, the Conservative universities minister David Willetts wondered aloud, again, what could be keeping poor students out of our top universities. Ucas, the university admissions service, is on the case with a new government- commissioned review into why about 3,000 students, mainly from poorer performing schools, fail each year to get into the most prestigious institutions despite achieving good grades. Professor Steve Smith, vice chancellor of Exeter University, fanned political flames with his observation that places often end up going to pupils from private schools whose exam results are not as good.

It is very much in universities' interests to get this sorted out. If our cash-strapped seats of learning are to remain internationally competitive – thereby pulling in those lucrative foreign students – they must ensure they are admitting the brightest applicants, not just the richest or even the best educated.

To this end, many universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, operate energetic outreach programmes to attract more socially diverse applicants. Some apply their own weighting systems which allow universities either to adjust offers to students from poorly performing schools or to allow a degree of flexibility when the grades come in.

The latter invariably attracts gusty outrage from private schools that – reasonably, if not quite handsomely – are aggrieved that their students will be disadvantaged by playing field-levelling initiatives. In truth, though, it's hard to imagine a more cruelly weighted system than the esoteric interview and exam technique still used by some Oxbridge colleges to identify "independent thought". Private school pupils, expertly drilled in such matters, can answer questions of the "Why is an egg?" variety in their sleep. Comprehensive kids may assume it's a misprint.

With grade inflation further muddying the water for admissions tutors, it is hard to envisage a point-of-entry system that will suit all parties. One answer might be to take the roller to the playing field a good deal earlier.

Teaching standards will vary hugely, both within the state sector and across the state/private spectrum, but effectively, and to our shame, Britain today is saddled with a two-tier education system. Coalition initiatives – most notably the academy programme with its chimera of "private schools you don't have to pay for" can only widen the gap. If the Government gave a fig for social mobility, it would spend less time trumpeting the advantages of cherry-picked "show schools" ("Look! Latin returns to the state sector!") and invest in a back-to-basics literacy programme in all state schools.

When my 12-year-old son assured me airily that teachers at his school (a reasonably well-regarded London comp) didn't care about "punctuation and stuff", I assumed he was swinging the lead and made him redo his homework. To my gnashing frustration, it turns out to be true; since correct usage counts for only a tiny percentage of GSCE marks, schools focused on "teaching to the test" are choosing not to correct grammar or punctuation on written work. Slovenly speech goes similarly disregarded, for fear of seeming elitist.

Paradoxically, it is precisely this paranoid squeamishness about elitism that is keeping poor, bright kids out of good universities, because whichever subject they choose to study, they'll be competing for places with students whose schools did give a damn about fluent, correct expression. Those mangled, misspelled hopes and dreams will go straight to the bottom of the applications pile, and who can bear to count the lost potential?

Not poor David Willetts, who also has the universities' funding crisis on his plate, and whose own sentences are becoming increasingly feverish as he turns his party's policies sides to middle. "What would not make sense," he insisted on Thursday, "would be to fail to increase the contribution from graduates with the result that we then jeopardise the student experience."

Until now, Conservatives have strongly opposed any form of graduate tax, on the usual grounds of disincentive. The Lib Dems, on the other hand, called lustily throughout the election for the abolition of tuition fees. Because the higher education funding review, led by Lord Browne of Madingley and due to report next month, is expected to plump for raised tuition fees, and Willetts, as far as anyone can make out ("It is important that the way forward on student finance is progressive"), seems to be coming round to some kind of postdated payment system, it looks as if we might be heading for the perfect Coalition double whammy: higher fees and graduate tax.

Lest we all become skittish at the word "tax", however, it has been pointed out that because a percentage of graduates' income will go directly to universities, rather than through the Exchequer, it's not really a tax at all, more a "premium". And who wouldn't want to pay one of those?

It might work, too, if it hadn't been for the week's other big news, the depressing statistic that graduate unemployment, already at a figure of one in four, is set to rise to record levels if public-sector jobs are cut. I hate to break it to the beleaguered minister, but a percentage of bugger-all won't go far.

Cutbacks: We're certainly not all in this together, Gentleman George

I accept there has to be another round of spending cuts. I just don't accept that it's hurting "Gentleman George" Osborne as much as it's hurting me and I really wish millionaire members of the Cabinet would knock the "we're all in this together" lark on the head.

I know we're not supposed, in our well-bred British way, ever to comment on another's personal wealth. No man can help the circumstance of his birth and it is, of course, ungenerous and unfair to characterise the Cabinet as a shower of patrician twits. In much the same way, it's not even supposed to occur to us that Prince Charles, instead of bleating about bleeding his charities dry with ill-advised investments, might just reach into his own unguessably deep pockets.

It's just when they start banging on, like George Osborne, about the " choices" of the unemployed that those old "eat the rich" feelings rise to the gorge. (And don't you just love that mastery of the prole-friendly phrase when he impersonates the jobless chappie – the person who sits there and says, "You know what? This is a lifestyle choice for me!")

By what torsion of snobbery and self-loathing have we accepted the notion that it's just fine to make swingeing generalisations about the poor, but the height of bad manners to make allusion to riches? The tumbril can't come quickly enough.

Law changes: Murder by degree is a step in the right direction for justice

It is, I think, a hopeful sign that the Director of Public Prosecutions has backed the calls for the introduction of first-degree and second-degree murder charges in England and Wales.

The current "one-size-fits-all" murder charge is too blunt an instrument. The proposed adjustments would be of particular benefit to defendants who kill their partners after years of sustained abuse.

Crucially, first-degree murder, with intent to kill, would carry a mandatory life sentence, while second-degree murder, with intent to cause grievous bodily harm and/or proven provocation, would carry a discretionary life sentence.

Given the primacy of intention in the two-degree system, would it not, however, be sensible to get our laws on assisted dying sorted out first? Otherwise we risk a situation where someone who has killed out of love risks a longer sentence than someone who killed either by accident or by a rush of blood. Which cannot, in any degree, be called justice.