Editorial: Right problem, wrong answers, Mr Milburn


Related Topics

There can be little doubt that Alan Milburn, the former Labour MP and now the Government's social mobility tsar, has his finger on the pulse when he identifies one of the key problems besetting our education system. For too long, there has been a vast gap in achievements between the haves and have-nots in accessing places at leading universities.

Worse still, as the education charity the Sutton Trust has identified, there are 3,000 young people from state schools who, despite the same straight As at A-level as their private school peers, do not get into the UK's most selective universities. But to acknowledge that Mr Milburn has correctly diagnosed the problem is not to say that his proposed remedies are either fair or effective.

His starting point looks obvious enough: to suggest that universities make lower A-level offers to students from disadvantaged homes and poorly performing schools. Concerns about fairness from parents who have paid for private education can be something of a red herring here. If a university has spotted raw talent in a candidate whom they believe will flourish at degree level in three years' time, there is no reason not to set a low bar for entrance, regardless of the person's background. Indeed, many universities – including Bristol and Cambridge – already pursue such a strategy, and research suggests that poorer candidates who take advantage of such offers often end up with higher degree passes.

So far, so good. But if Mr Milburn's edict was to be turned into a blanket policy for all students from impoverished backgrounds, the result would not only be discrimination against those whose families are better off, but also an admissions system that did not necessarily prioritise intellect above all else. Hardly desirable.

Mr Milburn's second point – that universities should step into ground vacated by the Government and provide financial assistance to disadvantaged 16- to 18-year-olds to help them to pass their exams – is similarly questionable. Such a move would put too much financial pressure on educational institutions. Pressure to reverse the Treasury's decision to axe the educational maintenance allowance should surely be put on the Government itself. Perhaps his most worrying suggestion, however, is that universities be required to draw up a five-year plan with targets for recruitment from socially disadvantaged areas. After all, who knows where the sharpest intellectual talent will be found in the future?

Where Mr Milburn does have some constructive ideas is in the suggestion that universities drop the fee waivers now being used to attract students, and instead invest the money in, for example, summer schools, which can give the disadvantaged a taste of university life and remove some of the mystery attached to institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge. He could also take a leaf out of the book of Lord (Martin) Rees, the former master of Trinity College, Cambridge, who suggested that the brightest students from disadvantaged areas be given the opportunity to switch university after two years if they showed themselves ready for one of the more select institutions.

Social mobility, or the lack of it, is one of Britain's more intractable problems. And access to higher education is a valid place to start. But while there are indeed measures that can be taken to reduce privilege and establish a more level playing field, Mr Milburn's bulldozer is not among them.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SEN Learning Support Assistant

£60 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Group: Youth Support Workers Glouceste...

IT Technician - 1st Line

£19000 - £21000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPOR...

PPA Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Pr...

Primary Teaching Jobs Available NOW-Southport

£80 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: **Due to an increase in dema...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Actor Brad Pitt  

The over-50s have the real voting and spending power — so why are we so obsessed with youth?

Stefano Hatfield

Daily catch-up: unbuilt buildings, the new Establishment and polling on Europe

John Rentoul
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London