Cristina Odone begins her latest oh-woe-is-Britain post most amusingly:

Around the world, people have long envied Britain’s two institutions: the BBC and Oxbridge. Britons, however, (or some of them) are determined to destroy both. They are going about it in a brutal and obvious way, by lowering standards for both Auntie and the great universities of Oxford and Cambridge. The BBC abroad was a byword for beautifully written and brilliantly produced programmes such as “The World at War” and “Upstairs Downstairs”. But in its obsession with “diversity”, the Beeb has allowed standards to slip: comedies that aren’t funny (but don’t sound middle class) and reality shows that teach nothing but how temporal celebrity is, have taken over the schedule. Soon the BBC brand will be synonymous with Simon Cowell rather than David Attenborough, Laurence Friedman and literary classics. It will, in other words, be a joke.

I say this is amusing because, of the many programmes one might cite to praise the BBC, it’s droll to choose two that were made for ITV. Entertaining too to suggest the BBC “brand” will be synonymous with another ITV man, Simon Cowell at the expense of “literary classics” even as the corporation broadcasts a lavish, very fine, adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End.

Unfortunately this might be the high-point of Ms Odone’s lament. She argues:

The same is going to happen to Oxbridge (and the other top universities), if the Coalition’s “access adviser” Prof Les Ebdon has his way.

[...] When children leave secondary schools without knowing how to read, write or do their sums, what can a university, even the best university, do with them? It is not fair to push an illiterate into Oxford instead of a brilliant middle-class child. It’s not fair, and it’s not good for anyone: not for the illiterate who will feel out of her depth; not for the university which will have compromised its standards and name; not for the economy which will have lost out on a potential talent.

Well! As it happens I also think the Office for Fair Access is a nonsense but not because I think it’s going to insist Oxford (or anyone else) accepts “illiterates” (what a smoothly unpleasant way of putting it, incidentally). Rather I think it’s unnecessary because Britain’s best universities are already – and have been for years – acutely conscious of the need to admit students from a wide range of backgrounds. Perhaps they could do more but no-one who knows anything about their activities can deny that Oxford and Cambridge, in common with other leading universities, run any number of “access” programmes. Indeed they already do pretty much all the things OFFA wants them to do.

That means that, actually, there are plenty of occasions in which potential students from private schools lose out to pupils from comprehensives whom admissions tutors think have more potential even if they have thus far achieved poorer exam results. And that’s as it should be.

Universities should be free to admit whomever they like for whatever reasons they choose. That’s one reason for having an interview system rather than an admissions system overly-dependent upon examination results. Not every university can afford this, however.

Odone continues:

This is not to deny that British education is hopelessly divided (and divisive). On the one hand, we have world-renowned private schools, that have Russian oligarchs and Arab sheikhs vying to send their progeny to. They are the envy of the world’s elite. On the other, we have state schools so poor that Britain languishes towards the bottom of the pile in every international league table. Bridging this gulf is the big challenge before us – not diluting the quality of the best universities.

Actually, British education – or, rather the different education systems within the United Kingdom – does not languish at the “bottom of the pile in every international league table”. The most recent PISA scores place England just inside the top half of the 67 countries measured, a little behind Scotland and some way ahead of Wales. That may not be as good as we might wish but there’s no need to claim the results are worse than they actually are.

And, of course, “bridging this gulf” is exactly what selective university admissions tailored to specific circumstances is actually designed to achieve.

As I say, OFFA is a foolish sop to the Lib Dems but it’s utterly mistaken to suppose it will either cripple Oxbridge or that it’s anything like the most important element of education policy. On the contrary, improving the early years of education is the most important thing. Then you can begin to talk about secondary education.

Improving standards across the board is important but, yes, it’s appalling that so few schools produce so much of the talent that makes it to Britain’s leading universities. Which is why discrimination in university applications is actually a good thing. It is a nonsense to pretend that tiny inconveniences or additional hurdles placed in the way of the 7% of kids educated privately is some kind of national disgrace, far less that doing so is going to “ruin” Britain’s leading universities.

Again, however, discrimination is a feature not a bug so there’s no real need for OFFA at all as universities are perfectly capable of managing these things for themselves.

Tags: Britain, Education, oxbridge, UK politics, Universities