Editorial: Right problem, wrong answers, Mr Milburn

 

Share
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

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Polish minister Rafal Trazaskowski (second from right)  

Poland is open to dialogue but EU benefits restrictions are illegal and unfair

Rafal Trzaskowski
The report will embarrass the Home Secretary, Theresa May  

Surprise, surprise: tens of thousands of illegal immigrants have 'dropped off' the Home Office’s radar

Nigel Farage
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas