Saturday, September 15, 2007

So it Begins?

Cambridge, Elitist?
Yes, but in the right way
Yesterday was not a good day. Not only did it see a very poor performance by England against the Boks (fair effort forwards, did we have any backs?*), but we also saw the possible beginning of something I've feared since the announcement of Broon's first cabinet.

Yesterday, John Denham, the Universities Secretary addressed the Universities UK annual conference in Leicester. He should, of course, have delivered a humble apology for the piss poor performance of a succession of NuLab Education secretaries who have delivered a debased examination system, and a stream of state educated eighteen year-olds many of which are less prepared for a top-flight academic career than any in living memory.

Of course though, honesty, integrity and basic decency have never been the hallmark of the NuLab project, so instead:
John Denham, the Universities Secretary, said some of the "most sought-after" institutions were shunning bright children from poor homes.

In a veiled attack on universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, which have the fewest students from state schools, Mr Denham said academics should do more to "identify and nurture the young students of the future".

Source: Daily Telegraph

It's hardly surprising that the attack was 'veiled', without this thinnest of defences I believe that the institutions at the heart his assault could have, and should have, taken legal action against Denham, as what he said, not to put too fine a point on it, was a lie.

The concept that Oxbridge, or any top flight educational institutions would 'shun' anybody on account of a 'poor' background is offensive and wrong. The truth, as I witnessed it, was the reverse. From what I saw at Cambridge, and I can't believe that for all its many faults, that Cowley Poly was any worse, the University bent over backwards to encourage state school applicants from underrepresented areas, and delighted in selecting those that made the grade. The only thing they will not do is compromise on their goal of achieving the highest possible degree of excellence in the output of their system.

Given that it is impossible to prove any inherent prejudice against those from less privileged backgrounds, as simply it does not exist, the only conclusion we can draw from government thinking is that Team Broon must believe that the institutions should accept a lowering of their standards in favour of some ephemeral concept of social justice.

It's the wobbly table leg principle. We've gone for an 'all shall have prizes' approach to secondary education, which leaves state school pupils at a disadvantage. No longer do they compete head to head with those with of more privileged background on tough but fair examinations at 16 and 18, but now all shine superficially with those with the means having more chance to demonstrate excellence through higher level examinations and better preparation for interviews. Does the government do anything to address this underlying problem? No, let's tinker with the one globally respected part of the UK educational system to cope with the situation we have created.

Denham needs to take a look at the broader picture. Leading Universities are doing all they can, and genuinely want to attract the type of student he claims to champion. If, despite this, the numbers look unacceptable to him, he really needs to focus his attack on his colleagues responsible for the remainder of the British educational system, not on institutions whose one real commitment is to an excellence (myself not included!) that is an asset to the country.

Thunder Dragon raises another salient point on the same story when he points out that no numbers were quoted for the number of applicants from different types of school. As so often the case where social injustices are alleged, they are conspicuous by their absence. It doesn't matter whether it is the number of women in Parliament, ethnic minorities in the police force, or 'poor' students at Oxbridge. If you want to land the problem at the door of the institution in question you must at least first demonstrate that those who apply do have a lower chance of success, and if this can be shown, that such statistics are unfair against objective criteria. Looking simply at the numbers of those who get over the finishing line may mask a catalogue of failures whose roots lie far beyond the control of the institution in question.

Of course though, the story is nothing to do with the prospects of poorer state educated students in the university system. It is simply another sign that behind the marketing facade, the good old fashioned envies and hatreds that have always been the driving force behind the labour movement are alive and well. They always have been, and always will be the real 'nasty party'.

* If is the end...bad luck Jason Robinson and thanks for all you have done, you've been a class act in the white shirt.

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