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Editorial: Right problem, wrong answers, Mr Milburn


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.