Nasty and Cynical Social Meddling; COMMENTARY

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Byline: ANTHONY O'HEAR

OUR leading universities are rightly valued for their contribution to our national life. They are institutions devoted to teaching and research into the best that has been thought and known. Subjects like maths, physics, the other sciences, literature and philosophy are studied there for their own sake, because they are worthwhile in themselves and also because they enhance any society in which they flourish.

Universities are also places where young people are educated to the highest standards for vital professions like medicine, engineering and the law.

Above all, they are devoted to expanding the minds of those qualified and able to benefit from intellectual work at the highest level.

To achieve their goals, universities need to be able to teach and research in an atmosphere of free inquiry and they need to maintain the highest standards.

This means they must have the freedom to select their students as they see fit: that is, on strictly academic grounds.

But this would be impossible if recommendations from yesterday's report by the Commons Education Sub-Committee are carried out. Indeed, rarely have I seen such a nasty and fundamentally dishonest piece of work.

If its proposals are accepted, it will completely alter the nature of universities.

The report cynically couches its recommendations in a language calculated to obscure what is actually proposed and simply ignores the main problems faced by universities and the evidence which would show that its proposals are simply irrelevant.

Under its proposals, universities will no longer be places of free inquiry, teaching and researching freely. Instead, they will become agents of central government, enacting its misguided projects of social engineering, with threats to those universities which fail to comply.

All this amounts to postcode prejudice. For, if the committee has its way, each university will be forced to take a given proportion of its students from areas of the country designated as being particularly disadvantaged.

In 35 years of studying and working at universities, I have never known any academic discriminating against a well qualified person on grounds of their social background.

QUITE the contrary; most academics in the top universities will do anything they can to help deserving cases from disadvantaged backgrounds, so long as it is done on merit and without compromising standards.

But then the MPs are not interested in what actually happens. Nor are they interested in what universities stand for.

Instead, without a shred of argument and on nothing more than egalitarian dogma, they simply assume there is something wrong with a university whose students do not come equally from all sections of society.

And while they declare themselves against quotas to equalise university populations across social class, they recommend that 'all higher education institutions should establish and make public their targets for a range of access performance indicators'. …