Michael Bywater: A misbegotten idea that will prolong the reign of the old boys and elites

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The Independent Online

Nick Clegg sometimes just listens to music and cries, he told Jemima Khan in an interview this week. We all know the feeling.

Sometimes many of us just listen to Mr Clegg and cry, as I did earlier this week when, in conjunction with the still strangely invisible Iain Duncan Smith, he released a fine bubbling flatus on the subject of meritocracy. "Internships," he announced, "have been the almost exclusive preserve of the sharp-elbowed and the well-connected." And then it came out that Cleggie had got where he is today thanks to Daddy. How contemptible.

But I, too, am in precisely the same boat. My father was a provincial GP, son of a provincial GP, not rich nor celebrated, but prudent and, as a result, comfortable. Imagine if he had instead been unemployed because of chronic illness, living in one of the more benighted, economically depressed regions of Britain. What would have become of me? But he wasn't. So he could afford for me to investigate my interests, music, theatre and medicine. He could pay for me to have organ lessons, to get holiday jobs at the hospital, as a porter and factotum. (In my spare time I watched his friends operating, and absorbed the life of the hospital.) As doctor to the Nottingham Playhouse he arranged for me, aged 17, to meet a remarkably hospitable and courteous Ian McKellen, who took me seriously and advised me to go to university, whatever my eventual decision. He recommended Cambridge; my organ master recommended it, too, and put me in for the organ scholarships, and so it was that I found myself there, reading medical sciences, playing the splendid organ in the college chapel, and endlessly swanning around in plays.

None of it came to the expected conclusion and here I am now: Will Write for Food. But it would not have happened at all, I'm sure, had it not been for my father's careful deployment of his contacts. That was how things were.

But how things also were was the free county council Saturday music school (alumni including the conductor Nic McGegan and the soprano Patrizia Kwella) and I got into that; and my school was true to its 16th century foundation: half paid nowt (LEA scholarships and founders' bursaries), half (the well-off ones) paid double. Now, it is private. And there were university grants, too, not loans.

I said earlier, "Imagine if he had instead been unemployed because of chronic illness, living in one of the more benighted, economically depressed regions of Britain." He wasn't. But I know, indirectly, of a third-year student, cleverer and more diligent than I ever was, reading humanities at one of the country's top universities, whose father is. Let's call her X.

X is remarkable. Her undergraduate work has a flair, a precision, a depth and élan that you'd associate with a professional academic (one who hadn't yet had the spirit knocked out of her by witless government "guidelines" and "targets"). X got herself into university from an everyday comprehensive, entirely on merit, supported by a student loan and by extra hardship subsidies. In any sane world, someone of her talent and intellectual exuberance would go on to do a doctorate and, almost certainly, continue in the academy as a don, in which role I calculate that she would provide intellectual inspiration, and rigour, to at least 2,000 students over the course of her professional working life.

A society that doesn't see this as a superb investment has lost the will to live, and certainly the ability to survive. Some politicians – the present government among them – say, "That's all very well but what we need is science, maths and engineering." That's rum, given the unspeakable degree of scientific and technological illiteracy among the political classes.

Back to X. There was a time, not so long ago, when X would proceed to an even finer university to do her doctorate. Both Oxford and Cambridge agree, and, unusually but unsurprisingly, have both offered her a place. But here's the problem. Mr Clegg's sentimental new world is subject to the Law of Unintended Consequences, a law even more relentless and ubiquitous than Sod's. And so X may well be lost to the system.

To do a PhD, you first have to do an MPhil. To do an MPhil, you have to find £10,000 or so, plus your living costs. There was a time when the Arts and Humanities Research Council would have funded that year, but the AHRC has been flayed by panicky government cuts and no funding is available. There are some sources of college funding, but X doesn't yet know for sure which college she has been assigned to, and in any case the undergraduates already there have put in their funding applications long before X even knew she'd been offered a place.

What remains? Here is where the Clegg/Duncan Smith trap springs shut. They trumpet a socially mobile country, one that "bases opportunity on your ability and drive, not on who your father's friends are". But it's twaddle. X has ability and drive enough for 10, but there is no public funding for her; her father has no useful contacts, nor £10,000 to see her into her doctoral programme: a sum most middle-class families could, even with a certain amount of manoeuvring, manage to raise.

We can extrapolate the results of this misbegotten, ill-digested idea. Middle-class students will displace the Xs of the country. Academia will slowly become, over the next 20 years, a middle-class career. The academy in general will become less, not more, hospitable to the Xs. And so elitism – the dirty old socio-economic elitism, not the intellectual elitism the great universities of the world exist to create – will reign.

There is a way out of the Clegg trap, but it's pure happenstance. X has, by luck, a mentor at her university who understands and encourages her. This mentor, by chance, has a couple of rather well-connected friends; they, in turn, have access to a network of the rich and philanthropic. If the worst comes to the worst, they will probably rally round. What's £10,000 compared with the development of a brilliant young mind?

But ... having been excluded by the official funding system, and excluded by the lack of a well-connected father, if X uses the accidental contacts of her mentor, isn't that also the "networks" of "who you know" on which Mr Clegg has declared war? Of course it is.

Which leads me to think X and her like are damned if they do, damned if they don't, and, in the Clegg/Duncan Smith polity, they should accept that they are no more than oiks and uppity proles, drop their fancy Ideas, and sink quietly back into the ranks.

It's pull-up-the-ladder politics of the most repugnant sort, and I can only think that the Clegg/Duncan Smith axis is either consciously malign or well-meaning but rather thick. The latter is the more serious offence in government. But if the worst comes to the worst, X could always offer them lessons in how to think clearly. Bankers' rates should about cover it; say £8,000 a day.

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