Boris Johnson urges a return to academic scholarships to drive up university standards
Not long ago I was giving a speech evangelising the benefits of higher education, as I always do. I stressed that it was a good thing not only for the economy but above all for our civilisation that young people should go to university and learn more about their world and themselves.
At the end of my harangue, a couple of prosperous-looking young Oxbridge graduates came up and said that it was all very well calling for continued expansion of higher education, but that there were some people who simply weren't able to benefit.
"We've got friends who went to Teesside University with two Es at A level, and at the end they felt they had completely wasted their time."
Politicians, they said, had no business encouraging people to go to uni, rack up huge debts and do diddly-squat while pretending to study some dud course.
I felt very stung by their comments, and yet I knew that they had a point and that their view was shared by huge numbers of people.
British universities are a fantastic national success story. They deserve funding, encouragement, expansion, support. But there is real anxiety about standards.
As one right-wing frother on the fringes of my party said to me not long ago: "I don't mind these people doing windsurfing studies and whatever, but WHY SHOULD I PAY FOR IT?"
There are people like him in saloon bars up and down the land. I passionately disagree with him about the benefits of university. And yet in so far as these critics have a bit of a point, they deserve to be answered.
Here is one partial solution, one means of driving up standards.
It is already in use in some universities. I believe it could be used more vigorously.
Why not encourage universities to discriminate in a more thoroughgoing way between those who do well academically and those who do less well as a means to inspire students to achieve more? And why not use money to do this?
Cambridge University has already said that there are some subjects that it values and some that it would encourage potential entrants to pursue. There seems no reason in principle why universities should not once again give academic scholarships to those who do very well at A level or in any other exam deemed appropriate.
If it is necessary for admissions tutors to have access to the exact marks as opposed to grades, then that seems a worthwhile reform.
A return to academic scholarships would give universities a chance to reward the efforts of those who are doing subjects they value, and that would in turn encourage students to do the crunchier subjects - the Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects, modern languages - that they are drifting away from.
Of course, these scholarships would not be a replacement for means-tested funding for those who might otherwise be deterred from university. There could be scholarships decided on academic grounds as well as on grounds of financial need.
I would go further and suggest that at the end of their university career, students could be rewarded for their efforts if they do well in finals.
This would certainly give an incentive to achieve more and get into the library, and would address the concerns of some of the saloon-bar bores who attack modern universities.
If universities were offering substantial sums to those who do well in finals, they might be discouraged - how can I put this tactfully - from offering so many firsts and upper seconds as sometimes to crowd the market and confuse employers.
There will be all sorts of objections to this idea, and the most vociferous will say that it is socially regressive because good performance in A levels is directly correlated with socioeconomic class. All I can say is that getting rid of academic scholarships, as we did in the 1960s, was hardly socially progressive. There are fewer candidates reaching Oxbridge from the maintained sector now than there were then.
Yes, we need to work much harder to get people from non-traditional schools and backgrounds to come to university, and yes, Aimhigher has not yet achieved all that we hoped for it.
But those are problems that need to be addressed in schools, and they will be the subject for another article (if the editor will allow me).
There is no reason why people from all backgrounds should not be encouraged, excited and motivated by the prospect of an academic distinction that also carries financial reward.
Boris Johnson is Shadow Spokesman for Higher Education.