Leader: A game of haves and have-nots

Social engineers seem to infest universities but are curiously absent in public schools. How strange

May 22, 2008

Two national newspapers picked up our story last week on the University of Manchester's frank assessment of the pressures placed on undergraduate teaching by mushrooming student numbers and diminished resources. The vice-chancellor conceded that despite the "noble" efforts of staff, "the rise of mass higher education" and inexorable pressures "to do more for less" had had a deleterious effect on teaching: "In the end gravely diminished per capita resourcing must tell on educational quality." The internal reports also recommended that Manchester should relax its entry grades to address its deficit in pupils from state schools.

Both the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph reported the vice-chancellor's comments and both inserted a phrase of their own, "social engineering", which did not appear in the original reports. The Mail was particularly incensed by the indulgence towards the poor and added the views of an independent schoolmaster who warned the university that its cavalier attitude to entry grades and its inferred prejudice against the deserving middle classes would backfire.

Social engineering, one must remember, is a grotesque attempt by progressives to undo years of advantage by reducing the handicaps of the underprivileged at the moment when they may consider entering higher education. It limits opportunities for those who have spent many years paying for the privilege of equipping their children with a fine education. This process is termed giving one's child "a good start in life", and differs from "social engineering" because the initiative is the parents' not the state's, the cost is borne by the parents not the state, and the effort expended usually endures for several years before university as opposed to a post-school retro-fix consisting of a few remedial classes.

But in the essentials it is the same as social engineering, which is sometimes known by its alternative tag "too little, too late". Both processes display a willingness to bend the rules to identify and augment any natural abilities a student possesses. Social engineers rule-bend when students are 18 or older; "good-starters" generally at age 11 or younger.

This early resort to rule-bending, usually referred to as parents' inalienable right to determine the proper education for their children and limited to those with relatively deep pockets, allows good starters to claim that any late match-fixing by social engineers penalises those pupils with the best grades. The intelligent lose out to the less qualified and universities sacrifice intellectual rigour on the altar of political correctness, they fume.

Last week, King's College London revealed the results of a project that lowered its medical-school entry requirements for pupils from disadvantaged areas and gave them an extra year's tuition. Of the group, 12 per cent got a first, 76 per cent an upper second and 12 per cent a lower second, compared with 28 per cent, 65 per cent and 7 per cent for the other students. The extra cost was a hefty £190,000 a year. As good starters have long appreciated, natural ability grows best when showered with time, dedication and plenty of money.

With not much time and too little money, universities should continue to do what they can - adopt flexible entry requirements, weed out socially biased techniques, put on remedial classes, and be more relaxed about dropout rates and a little more forgiving towards those who might want to return. But they should reluctantly accept that there is a limit to what can be done with finite resources and acknowledge what the headline writers at the Mail and Telegraph have long known - that social manipulation is best practised when drawing up the rule book and not in injury time a few minutes from the final whistle.

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