Stefan Stern: Not levelling down but making it fair

More power to Prof Ebdon's elbow. Let's all take a deep breath and calm down

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Is it because he is Les? Or Luton? Professor Ebdon, the newly appointed head of the Office for Fair Access (Offa), is vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire where, it may be assumed, there is little in the wine cellar to compare with the riches of other more venerable institutions. His appointment has not gone down well with some Conservatives and elite academicians, who fear he seeks a levelling down in his task of ensuring greater access to higher education.

What a mess "we" have made of education in this country. Good intentions have not been in short supply. But party politics and the violent pendulum swings of fashion have done their worst. The admirable, if idealistic, policy of getting half of all 18-year-olds to pursue higher education implied a complete transformation of university funding. We should not have been surprised that fees have had to rise. In this explicitly commercial environment, a regulator like Offa becomes a necessity if the principle of universal access to education is to be protected.

But there have been botches on the way. For understandable reasons, the old polytechnic/university distinction was abandoned in 1992. Big mistake. The polys had a strong identity of their own and had been established for the good reason of offering an alternative and credible route to higher education. The removal of the distinction made the 50 per cent goal harder to argue for and harder to achieve. Courses vary enormously, but now they were all in the same bracket. Not all universities are or should be the same. Erasing the identity of the polys implied that they were.

I should add – with no offence intended to my former tutors – that the most memorable and stimulating teaching I enjoyed at Oxford was offered by a lecturer who cycled down the hill from the poly every week. I should also add that the sharpest student in my year was state-educated, while the bunch of plausible identikits from private schools could not quite keep up.

Unsurprising, really. As John Springford from the Social Market Foundation has pointed out, at university, once the splendid advantages of their expensive secondary education are no longer on tap, "private school students revert to their inherent ability".

So good on yer, Les. All power to your elbow. Let's all take a deep breath and calm down. We should be trying much harder to get bright 18-year-olds into the right courses for them, and not allow a highly privileged minority to snaffle all the places at prestigious universities because they have been crammed full of the approved material. Last week it was reported that six private schools send more pupils to Oxbridge than half of all state schools put together. Efficient? Sensible? Fair? Of course not.

Stefan Stern is Visiting Professor of management practice at Cass Business School, London

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