For Oxford and Cambridge there is a very simple solution to the issue of political interference in their admissions processes, leave the state system.
The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister’s interventions this week, claiming race and income discrimination on the part of elite universities, are so evidence-free and infantile they barely merit comment.
Suffice to say the spectacle of the Coalition’s leading Oxbridge-educated figures behaving like socialist worker leaflet pushers ranting about social justice, is unlikely to inspire many youngsters that the route to success involves making a thoughtful case based on evidence. Something they teach in elite universities.
Access to selective education should be based on merit, and that’s all there is to it. What merit means should be up to the institution concerned, whether by competitive examination or interviews to root out untrained potential.
If groups are under-represented or failing to compete for places at age 18 is not the fault of the institutions concerned. Nor is it their role to correct it. All that means is denying someone who deserves a place on the grounds of ability, in order to give it someone less able who fills a quota.
That is not ‘fair’.
Nor is there any way of sensibly determining what a fair distribution of opportunity looks like. What ratio of children from Richmond to Barnsley attending Cambridge represents success in the mind of the DPM?
Further the whole thrust of Liberal Democrat education thinking in the last decade has been that early intervention matters far more than late. That is point of the pupil premium. University access codes are in that regard are unlikely to be either effective or good value for money.
But this is a tiresome debate. Politicians are politically motivated, such interference and nudges will continue so long as politicians run universities. The politics in this case concern promoting the absurd tuition fees compromise that is supposed to link price to pro-poor tokenism rather than supply and demand.
The threat made then is ‘do something about this or lose public money’.
Oxford and Cambridge should call their bluff.
The UK’s two best universities should not struggle to thrive in the private sector. Fees would rise, but then so would bursary schemes to offset the impact on those without the means to pay, revenue from venture research, and private sector sponsorship. Alternate private sector loan systems would emerge to facilitate payment, many less expensive than the RPI+3% charges in the government’s pseudo-graduate tax.