Cross purposes

Alan Ryan wishes John Denham would build bridges instead of picking fights

October 16, 2008

Unlike many of my colleagues, I am not looking forward to the lifting of the cap on tuition fees, but this is not because I am eager that it should remain at its present level.

It is because it seems perfectly obvious that, firstly, the Government will kick the issue as far into the long grass as it can ahead of the 2010 election.

And secondly, that whatever happens over tuition fees, the same idiotic system of funding universities and their students will be persisted in, along with the same economically illiterate commentaries on the effect of fees on the pool of hard-working but hard-up talent not currently admitted to Oxbridge, Wolverhampton or to one of John Denham's proposed urban outposts.

Denham was, when he was at the Home Office, a decent, intelligent, humane and well-informed minister; and he had the guts and ethical integrity to resign from the Government in protest at the invasion of Iraq.

Ever since he got to the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, however, he's been a changed man and now talks ill-informed nonsense and picks needless fights. It's true that the departments of education in all their transformations have been dreadful places, and working in them was for many years the Civil Service equivalent of exile to Siberia.

But the deterioration in Denham is depressing for those of us who both liked and admired him.

So, in the hope of reformation, here goes. He, Alison Richard, Chris Patten and the head of the Oxford Admissions Office are at odds only because they are talking at cross-purposes - and because he irritates them by impugning their goodwill in ways that politicians tend to do, and academics strenuously try to avoid.

Mike Nicholson, who runs the Oxford Admissions Office, is something of an expert on inclusiveness; he was at the University of Essex before he went to Oxford and spent much of his time reaching out into the Essex hinterland for able students. Access is his bread and butter. When he said there were few qualified students from hard-up backgrounds for Oxbridge to reach out to, he was telling the literal truth.

Conversely, when John Denham, who thought he was contradicting him, said that it was absurd to suppose that there was no pool of unused ability, he also was telling the literal truth.

The reason is simple enough. Unless you believe both that IQ at birth is distributed according to parental income - there are people who do - and that it would make no difference to what a student could do at the age of 18 to bring her or him up in more rather than less comfortable surroundings, with more rather than less intellectual stimulation, and so generally on, it has to be true that there's a great quantity of innate but undeveloped ability that has withered for lack of sustenance or worse.

Certainly, the right parents can make an enormous difference against all odds - but if the odds were different, so would be the broader outcome.

None of which was denied by Mike Nicholson. What he denied was that there are lots of young people who here and now could cope with not just Oxbridge, but any of the intellectually tougher institutions.

You can't do physics at Imperial without a ton of prior training, any more than someone who'd never seen a piano could walk on to the stage and play Chopin or Liszt. The fact that if you had had the right education you would have been up to playing Liszt or tackling quantum mechanics is beside the point; if the question is whether you can do it here and now, the answer is no.

There is, of course, a vast deal more to be said. How far can affirmative action programmes make up for what's been missed? What about the differences between subjects that do require lots of prior knowledge and those that don't? But on the narrow issue, John Denham was not at odds with Mike Nicholson.

As to his view that when Alison Richard and Chris Patten tell the Government to stop meddling it is because they are committed to "more means worse", that too is just silly. The point is boring, simple, obvious and incontestable.

If someone says that Manchester United's job is to play football and not promote social justice according to the agenda of the present Government (which in any case has shown a lot more concern for the needs of non-doms and bank executives than for those of the poor), it does not follow that they are not concerned with social justice.

Nor does it follow that they regard football as more important than social justice. It merely means that they think that different institutions should be allowed to do the sort of thing they are set up to do and - with luck - are therefore pretty good at.

Governments should do what they are good at when they try: changing the distribution of income, raising taxes for better public education, spending money on social housing.

But imagine a world in which Manchester United had to means-test its fans and provide differential rebates based on their family income and Manchester United's total take from ticket sales - that's the Government's fees regime, and it tells you how seriously to take anything it says about higher education.

If John Denham paid some attention to sorting out the funding mess he's inherited he'd do a lot more good than he'll ever do by getting into ill-judged slanging matches.

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