Manipulation of university admissions, no matter how radical, cannot fight deep social inequalities, says Maria Misra
It was depressing, but not perhaps entirely surprising, to see the recent press coverage of the extraordinary elitism in recruitment to "top" professions in Britain. Despite a decade of efforts to bring diversity to universities, the best jobs in the media, law and business still seem to be hogged by denizens of private schools and pricey postcodes. Indeed, research from the Sutton Trust, the charity that promotes greater working-class and minority access to higher education, suggests that British society is becoming less, not more, socially mobile.
In the 15 years that I have been teaching at Oxford University, there have been ever more efforts to take more students from Britain's less affluent addresses - with some success. Oxford now admits students from private and state schools roughly in the proportions that they apply. The problem lies in getting young people from the less leafy suburbs of the South East to apply - and I imagine the same is true for some other universities.
All this is well known; the question is what to do about it. In the circumstances, one begins to have some sympathy with shock tactics. The Office for Fair Access (Off-Toff to cynics), the quango charged with tackling this phenomenon, is a well-meaning but perhaps toothless affair.
It requires universities to submit access agreements that commit them to more outreach projects and to offer bursaries to the less well-off. But will this do the trick? It seems possible that Gordon Brown, if he were Prime Minister, could institute a more stringent regime, with perhaps even positive discrimination being enforced through quotas by postcode. Given the failure of the softly-softly approach and the re-poshification of society, I can see how measures of this kind might appear defensible.
But experience from India suggests that social engineering of this type can have a toxic effect on broader social relations and politics. Recently, the Indian Government extended university quotas for lower caste groups to India's most prestigious institutions - institutes of science, technology and business. The impact was, quite literally, inflammatory. There were riots as students from high-caste backgrounds, facing exclusion from these previously exclusive academies, took the battle from the lecture halls to the streets.
It should not be forgotten that it was the increase in university quotas for low-caste groups pushed through in the early 1990s that provided the catalyst for the phenomenal ascendancy of the radical Right nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which moved from the lunatic fringe to party of government in less than ten years.
It is not impossible to imagine a similar backlash, whipped up by, say, the Daily Mail , among Britain's aspirant classes frustrated by similar obstacles to their social betterment.
Britain's stagnant and unfair social order needs addressing, but shock tactics are probably not the right strategy. Universities are also the wrong target. The problem is more deep-rooted. In part, it lies in the attitudes of some schools and families, but employers may also be to blame. Prestigious jobs seem now to be filled more and more by informal methods. In the media especially, the unpaid "internship" appears to have become the default mode of entry, and this is no more than the systematisation of the old boy network. For who but the well-off with contacts can benefit from this selection style? By comparison, British universities seem the very acme of meritocracy.
Maria Misra is a lecturer in modern history at Oxford University.