Elitism is on the agenda again this week, with independent school heads making menacing noises about government attempts to encourage preferential access to university for the poor. Admission to "a good university" is one of the things that fee-paying parents expect to get for their money.
The flow of not-quite-Oxbridge students to the United States is undoubtedly increasing. And well-intentioned campaigns, like that of the Sutton Trust, that aim to get more students from non-traditional backgrounds into ancient establishments, may be making matters worse. They give the impression that only a few universities are really worth going to.
Present methods of funding and assessing universities compound the effect. This week's university performance indicators (pages 6-7) implicitly concede that differentiation, decided largely by quality of research, is now substantial. They also show how expensive widening access is in terms of dropout rates and, therefore, universities' reputations. There is too little reward in either cash or kudos for insitutions that ensure that non-traditional students succeed.
It is tempting to try to prevent this differentiation getting worse by stopping students "trading up" (page 64) when higher-prestige insitutions offer places and even money. This is unlikely to work and, in any case, it limits individuals' opportunities. Better to look at ways of making sure students want to stick with their first choice because it suits them best.