The THES postbag has been bulging this week as seldom before as academics and administrators vent their spleen at the idea that they are guilty of elitism. Those in the new universities, particularly, resent the charge when so much of their effort has been directed at widening participation. Many suspect that they have been caught up in an attack that was really directed at a much smaller group of institutions.
Margaret Hodge, who stirred up the hornets' nest, is undoubtedly right that higher education still does not reach as far beyond its traditional middle-class recruiting grounds as it should. Last week's Paving the Way report on the experiences of working-class students pointed to some of the procedures that contribute to this failure. Students without a family tradition of higher education often need more help and encouragement to find suitable courses than universities currently offer. But no amount of tinkering with admissions practices will produce the sea change ministers seek.
Until more candidates from non-traditional backgrounds reach a level that enables them to benefit from higher education, changing attitudes in universities can have only marginal effect. Of course, admissions officers must take full account of vocational qualifications and become more adept at spotting those whose results suggest unfulfilled potential. But they cannot be held responsible for the shamefully large numbers who drop out of education at 16 and 17.
Universities' summer schools and recruiting drives may inspire more teenagers to stay on through the sixth-form, but only better secondary education and financial incentives will make a substantial difference. The chancellor's plans to make education maintenance allowances more widely available to college and sixth-form students are an important step, as attempts to produce a curriculum that motivates a wider range of 14 to 19-year-olds could be in the longer term. Without such measures to boost the supply of qualified applicants, however, Ms Hodge's strictures may be interpreted as an invitation to lower standards to meet an artificial government target. She says she wants to "build an intellectual elite, not a social elite", but, as in many other parts of the world, the school system dictates that the two go hand in hand. Admissions officers in most universities do not have the luxury of exercising elitist attitudes: they are looking hard for suitable candidates of any background to fill a growing number of places. For social, economic and educational reasons, too few candidates come from working-class homes, but the answer is not to lower standards. That way lies a devaluation of the very enterprise from which such students were supposed to benefit.
More sophisticated selection techniques may enable universities to see beyond current entry norms, but unless they can also afford to offer better support to struggling students, they will be doing the new breed of entrant no favours. Every successive set of statistics confirms more clearly that those with low qualifications are at greatest risk of dropping out of their courses. This month's spending review will show whether ministers are serious about catering for non-traditional students, or whether the extension of opportunity will simply end in dispiriting failure for thousands of teenagers who might otherwise have found fulfilling jobs. Our survey of final-year undergraduates shows how easily well-intentioned attempts to postpone uncomfortable decisions can backfire. Many of the students who will be denied degrees this summer because they still owe fees may eventually clear their debts and gain their qualifications. But unless there is good reason to suppose that this is a realistic prospect, it cannot make sense to allow undergraduates to reach the end of a three-year course in the knowledge that there will be nothing to show for their efforts. Students and universities alike merely slide further into debt.