Social mobility, yes. Outreach efforts, yes. Quotas, absolutely not

Ruth Deech argues that any attempt by Offa to shape the make-up of the student body is wrong-headed and could fall foul of the law

March 8, 2012

Credit: Femke De Jong

Universities have failed in their resistance to a century of attacks on their support and freedom. This may be because the purpose of higher education has been continually refashioned to evade the charge that the sector lacks unifying principles. The response to significant changes - including the end of the binary system, the introduction of higher tuition fees and the government's increasing reliance on businessmen to reform universities - has been uncoordinated. Sauve qui peut.

One area in which governments have tried to intervene is the admission of students, especially to elite institutions, amid concern that not enough come from low-income backgrounds and other disadvantaged groups. But the universities of Oxford and Cambridge would be much more attractive to the non-traditional applicant if politicians made encouraging statements about their quality rather than damaging and untrue assertions about discrimination. In considering the make-up of university students, there should be no place for talk of "over-representation" or "under-representation", any more than there should be when considering the make-up of the Cabinet or Olympic teams. Is anyone going to complain that there are "too many" students from one race or religion?

Historically, restrictions against and preferences towards particular groups of students have been a hallmark of totalitarian regimes. In the interwar period, some European states imposed quotas in education and employment. The 1933 German National Law against Overcrowding of German Schools and Universities barred educational establishments from having a student body that was more than 5 per cent "non-Aryan", and it was embraced by university staff. Whenever a radical new national regime is installed and needs to break the old order, it does so by destroying the legacy of influence and the expectation of a good education being handed down over the generations: think of the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution, the Eastern Europeans in the Cold War. They had in common the practice of handicapping the children of the intelligentsia in university admissions and jobs, and favouring the children of the "peasants" and the "workers".

My father told me that he was not allowed to graduate from the University of Vienna or practise law in the 1920s because he was Jewish, and in my youth, some English selective schools and colleges had quotas for Jews. My distaste for such measures therefore has deep roots.

The government's guidance to the Office for Fair Access, with its focus on "outcomes", is the brainchild of men and women whose own background was almost always private and grammar schools and Oxbridge. They want to take away the systems that benefited them; and by their decisions the social mobility that was engendered by grammar schools and free universities will never return.

Social mobility is an elusive concept. It may mean an equal chance for people from different backgrounds to join a certain social or income bracket, or to earn more than their parents. But social preferment depends on a certain exclusivity; once everyone is a graduate, it dissipates - and if everyone is going to be socially mobile into the middle classes, there will still, logically, have to be some who are "higher" and some who are "lower". If social mobility means more wealth, look at The Sunday Times Rich List and see how far down the list you must go to find someone whose success was determined by their education. Yet higher education is now being sold as an investment in future personal prosperity when in truth its output is for the wider benefit of all citizens.

If Offa is to sanction universities that fail to achieve the right outcomes, this will require the student body to reflect certain patterns. It seems to me that this would not be legal, for Offa has a duty under the Higher Education Act 2004 to protect admissions from external political influence, and any steps to insist on a particular student make-up could be resisted by judicial review. Moreover, there is a European human rights obligation, reflected in the Human Rights Act 1998, not to discriminate on grounds of social origin. The Equality Act 2010 obliges public authorities to have due regard to the reduction of socio-economic disadvantages and also prohibits universities from discriminating, but socio-economic background is not a "protected characteristic" in relation to discrimination.

In the end, everything comes down to family and school influences. There are too many teachers who are anti-elitism and who discourage pupils from aspiring to enter top universities, and there are many students who choose a local university so as to remain at home or who have families that discourage their ambitions. The abolition of the maintenance grant, which enabled a student to leave home and origins, is arguably more damaging to social mobility than anything else.

So "yes" to outreach, and "no" to entry quotas. As for the misguided Offa, the way to treat it is with resistance - to press for its abolition, and to challenge any imposition of sanctions by way of judicial review based on current law and human rights.

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