Congratulations to Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell who’s had the guts to admit that the Government are considering ‘social engineering’ policies to ensure that more state school pupils enter university. A predictable tirade of abuse has followed from educationalists in the so-called ‘independent’ sector. These people aren’t independent from anything – they represent nothing more or less than long-entrenched privilege: the privilege of money, the privilege of class and nepotism. Up until twenty years ago great swathes of places at Oxbridge were ‘tied scholarships’ open only to public school students, and in my day it was commonplace to see these chinless thickos toppling over outside their colleges because they were unable to tie their own shoelaces.
People seem to forget that the whole reason we live in a remotely egalitarian society is because of the introduction of universal, competitive examinations to universities and the civil service. The last bastions of privilege, whereby hugely disproportionate numbers of mediocre young people are promoted above their intelligence and ability, need to be engaged with forcibly by any Government in the social democratic tradition.
Still, what a pity Mr Rammell and his colleagues don’t also have the courage to apply social engineering where it’s really needed. I’ve got a couple of radical ideas that might help to level the higher education playing field. One of them is ‘grants’ – these would be a universal, free benefit available to anyone going to university. The ‘grants’ would be allocated on the basis of need with the parents of students being means tested. Crazy, huh? Another idea is ‘social housing’, this is low-cost housing built at a local level with central government finance. An adequate provision of this means that disadvantaged families can nurture the university students of tomorrow without being in hock to interest rates.
I’ve got other, wild ideas as well – like a properly enforced ‘minimum wage’, which means that menial jobs aren’t done by economic migrants, in turn driving down the wages of other working people. Oh, and there are these things called ‘apprenticeships’, which some countries, I understand, have in great numbers. Because, Mr Rammell, the mere possession of a degree in Media Studies from the University of Former-Poly doesn’t guarantee anyone a middle class lifestyle with all the bells and whistles. Unless we want an entire nation of unemployed advertising copywriters, unable to pay off their student loans, there needs to be other forms of social engineering besides jiggling the goalposts for tertiary education. Unfortunately such policies would nudge ‘social’ back towards ‘ism’. Not a happy suffix, eh Bill?