It is no use expecting the universities to sort all this out by going to 18-year-olds and dangling bursaries in front of them, if those 18-year-olds have long since been let down by the educational system, or if they have concluded that university is not for them
If the omens are right, this could be an epoch-making week. Lord Browne, formerly of BP, is finally about to unveil his recommendations on university finance, and I predict the political equivalent of an undersea oil-rig blow-out. He will say that universities should be free to charge more for tuition fees – and there is going to be fury from Left and Right.
From the Right-wing of the middle-class saloon bar, you will hear the frothings of those who have barely recovered from the apoplectic fit they sustained on hearing that the Government was thinking of withdrawing child benefit from higher-rate taxpayers. They will say that we would never have got into this university mess if governments had not recklessly expanded higher education so that we ended up with all these students doing Mickey Mouse courses at Mickey Mouse universities and expecting the taxpayer to pick up most of the bill – even though these so-called Mickey Mouse courses always turn out to be those that are being done by children other than the speaker’s own.
And from the Left, we will presumably be told that the taxpayer should continue to pick up most of the bill for the entire higher-education system – even though it is hardly progressive that people on low incomes should pay in their taxes for the university education of students who will go on to earn about 40 per cent more than those with no qualifications.
In the middle of the saloon bar, the poor Lib Dems will have to cope with the reality that they are historically obliged by their membership of the Coalition to sort out university finances, even though they all signed some sort of vow, in opposition, not to make use of the most obvious and equitable solution – higher fees supported by loans to be repaid by graduates as and when they become able to pay.
It is going to be a bloodbath; and when the political parties have stopped their fuming, they are all going to turn around and point their fingers at a common foe. The universities! If the universities are to be allowed to charge higher fees, then everyone will demand that they do much more to admit students from poorer backgrounds – and so they certainly should. Lord Browne’s recommendations will only fly if it can be clearly demonstrated that the universities will not set fees that would deter lower-income pupils from thinking of a university career. They will have to show how that extra income will go into bursaries and outreach programmes and all manner of measures to improve access to higher education.
So before the whole frenzy begins, and universities are hauled into the dock, I want to utter a faint peep in their defence, and say that widening access is very hard for them to do on their own. They must work with what they are given. There is a reason why the percentage of state school pupils at Oxbridge has declined from 62 per cent in 1969 to its present dismal level of 53 per cent – and no, it is absolutely nothing to do with snooty dons preferring to share their sherry with products of the public-school system. It is because of long-term difficulties in the maintained sector – not least the abolition of the grammar and direct-grant schools.
It is no use expecting the universities to sort all this out by going to 18-year-olds and dangling bursaries in front of them, if those 18-year-olds have long since been let down by the educational system, or if they have concluded that university is not for them. And we cannot expect universities to spend ever more time and money on outreach programmes, sending academics and students around the nation’s schools in search of potential undergraduates to foster, when that is a job that should fundamentally be done by the schools themselves.
That is why the most important voice in the great university debate belongs this week not to Lord Browne or any of the politicians – but to Katharine Birbalsingh, the deputy head of a south London school. She has now become the latest great martyr to what I can only call political correctness. She was sent home from her school after having the effrontery to suggest that Lefty thinking in education was inhibiting discipline, standards and competition. But isn’t she right?
Isn’t she right to point to the central importance of discipline and the authority of teachers in driving up educational standards? She strikes me as being a principled person who has reached the end of her tether, and I welcome the move to reinstate her.
Yet I can also understand the irritation of her fellow teachers who feel attacked – like the universities – when they feel that they must cope with what they are given. That is why we need to go right back to the beginning. Just about the most hopeful thing I have seen in the past few months has been an organisation called Parent Gym, which has started up at a south London primary school. Under the direction of a dynamic head teacher, parents of some of the most difficult or potentially difficult kids are brought together to share their problems.
It was fascinating to see the relief and excitement of these parents, as they discussed how to enforce homework, how to turn off the computer game, how to make them behave. Watching the Parent Gym meeting, I saw how a mother or father’s sense of anxiety and defeat could melt away once they understood that those feelings were common to so many other parents at the school. You could see the parents becoming more confident – and that is the way to make the children more confident.
Indeed, the school’s performance has improved since the scheme was introduced. It would be fantastic if something like Parent Gym could be rolled out across London and Britain. It requires people to help train and motivate the parents, and that means some money from the big cheeses with big cheque books who are an indispensable part of the Big Society. If some of those five- to 11-year-olds are to have any chance of making it to university, that is where we need to start.