Leading article: Education and information can unblock Britain's social mobility

The new places in higher education have been taken disproportionately by the better-off

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The British universities admissions service, Ucas, has unleashed a storm of protest by announcing that application forms for 2008 will ask for details of the prospective students' parents. Specifically, the forms will ask about their educational attainment and whether they have a degree.

The reasons for concern are not hard to divine. Graduate parents fear that their sins - in having been to university - will be visited on their children in the form of reverse discrimination. They worry that their offspring could be penalised by their own achievement - and all in aid of the Government's efforts to broaden access and get 50 per cent of school-leavers into higher education. Yesterday, after the Ucas moves became public, the air was thick with charges of "social engineering", and worse.

Yet the motives of Ucas need not be malign. The social composition of those aspiring to enter higher education is a matter of legitimate government - and public - interest, especially in a country such as Britain where class and income dictate so much. It is important to establish, too, whether there is any correlation between family background and the success or failure of an application. That would be a cause for concern, and remedial action.

What is wrong with this proposal is not that the information should be collected but that it should be collected at the time of application. Entry to university must be on the basis of merit, as measured by academic performance and any supplementary interviews and tests. To require information about an applicant's background at this stage naturally fuels suspicions that it will facilitate a form of social weighting. It would be preferable to solicit this information after the admissions process is complete. If there is then evidence that particular groups face discrimination in the selection procedure, the question of weighting might be considered in future.

That said, however, the Government is right to want to know more about who goes on to higher education. A university degree or diploma is the chief route into a professional career and higher pay. It is the key to the so-called "knowledge economy" and should be one of the main mechanisms for social mobility. Yet despite the recent rapid expansion of higher education, social mobility represents one of New Labour's biggest failures. Inequality has increased sharply; the new places in higher education have been taken disproportionately by the better-off, while studies show that a child born in the 1950s was more likely to move up a social class than a child born in or after the 1970s. In 10 years of Labour government Britain's social mobility has further declined.

To be fair, this Government has not banged the drum for greater equality for its own sake. It has fought shy of criticising high pay, choosing instead to improve the lot of those at the bottom of the economic pile, especially children, via benefits and tax credits, expanded nursery education and schemes such as Sure Start. The "choice" agenda in health and education was also designed, in part, to reduce the class differential in access to public services.

Yet despite much new spending, the situation of the very poorest has barely improved, and education is, if anything, more socially stratified than ever. More children now attend grammar schools than when Labour came to power, and money all too often determines access to good comprehensives because of high house prices in these catchment areas. A thriving modern state needs social mobility. With that in mind, there is an unimpeachable case for finding out how far university aspirations run in families. The social question is one that should be asked - just not on the Ucas application.

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