Alan Ryan

November 2, 2006

The dust has settled, the freshers have arrived, viruses from all over the globe are merrily infecting their new hosts, and academics over the age of 50 are, it appears from all the press reports, choosing between suicide, early retirement and another decade of poverty and management tyranny. And, as always, as we contemplate the students we have got, we anxiously wonder about the ones we haven't; where are the talented 18-year-olds who could have made a go of university but for whatever reason never showed up?

There is, of course, no single answer. The rate at which 18-year-olds from different socioeconomic backgrounds attend higher education is obstinately difficult to shift; if you come from a well-off background, you will have a hard time escaping university - the odds on going are about six to one - and if you come from the other end of the financial and occupational scale, the chances are reversed - fewer than one in six go. The absolute percentages have shifted dramatically over the past 40 years because the proportion of school leavers getting some sort of higher education has quadrupled; the relative percentages have remained spookily untouched.

The fact that the problem is intractable might suggest that it's complex or, to some people, that it may not be a problem at all, but just the outcome of innumerable individuals making what they can of the circumstances in which they find themselves. I think it is a problem, but I'm biased. Having been dragged out of a working-class background, I see education as a way of allowing people to escape the constraints of the class they are born into, but I can readily imagine a devout Catholic thinking quite the opposite, much as the Amish do. If most of what passes for the advantages of social mobility - higher incomes, more stuff to consume, more chances to rush around the world - are just distractions from the proper care of the self, you won't want to send half the population to some university or other. I doubt, in fact, that most readers of The Times Higher think that there is much correlation between the educational attainments of their friends and acquaintances and their more important human qualities.

Still, those who have the old liberal conviction that individuals should have every opportunity to get what they can from the world are bound to think that because children don't get to choose their parents they should not be held back - or pushed forward - by the fact that their parents are worse off or better off, less adept at parenting or more so. They will also feel pretty schizophrenic about how far to press that principle.

Concern for choice suggests that we should be cautious about eliminating all parental choice of schools, although we can be less cautious about saying that parents who send their children to a so-called faith school should pay the bill. Family ties are such that trying to "save" children from "bad parents" often does more harm than good; but the badness of really bad parents means that not doing it often results in severely damaged young people.

Which is preface to the observation that the intractability of problems doesn't, as you might expect, lead us to fiddle patiently with issues one at a time and try to make slow but steady improvements. It produces the urge to emulate Alexander the Great when he confronted the Gordian Knot; he drew his sword and cut straight through it. We like heroic measures, and we overestimate their chances of success. And onlookers tend to be turned on by the sight, whether for better or worse. The proposal from a working party set up by AimHigher that the C grades of the disadvantaged should be counted as equivalent to the A grades of the advantaged is what caught the public eye among a whole string of other suggestions, such as summer schools and catch-up classes of various kinds.

The dramatic proposal is in itself faintly cuckoo unless done carefully; whatever your social background, you'd suffer atrociously if you hit the Cambridge maths tripos with Cs in maths and physics. And the same would be true if you hit Oxford modern languages with three Cs in English, French and German. But it's not obvious that if you were possessed of intrinsic smartness and had a bad school and terrible A levels you'd have trouble doing law anywhere or the social and political sciences tripos in Cambridge.

The deep problem here, as in the US, is that the places best equipped to take in the disadvantaged and look after them properly are also the places where it's hardest to survive without a great deal of prior knowledge and really sophisticated skills. Whether this or any other government is really willing to pay for a year-long foundation course with a pretty high dropout rate is an interesting question... Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.

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