James Forsyth

Clegg’s cure for the tuition fee trauma

Clegg's cure for the tuition fee trauma
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The Liberal Democrats are still traumatised by what happened over tuition fees. Nearly every fringe meeting contained a long discussion of the issue and how the party could have handled it better.

Clegg’s plan to heal the wound is to show that the new system will go hand in hand with a broadening of access to the best universities. The deputy prime minister seems to be straining for a fight on this issue. In his speech, he laid into those at Oxbridge ‘who shrug their shoulders and say: That’s just the way things are’ about how dominated these institutions are by the children of the well-off. He demanded, ‘fair access now.’

But the problem is that access can only be as fair as the schools system allows. Yes, universities can pick on academic potential — someone who gets three Bs from a sink school is likely to be as able as someone who gets three As from a top-performing public school — but there has to be a basic level of knowledge to work with. Someone who hasn’t done further maths A-level, is going to find it very difficult to read maths at an elite university.

The low-hanging fruit is persuading pupils to apply to the best university they can. Too many think that the top universities are not for them or don’t understand the level of difference between universities. This is what makes David Willett’s plan to write to kids who have the grades but aren’t applying to the best universities is such a good idea. 

It is an example of the kind of thing that the coalition should be doing to broaden access in the short-term, while its school reforms address the problem in the medium term. It’ll do far more good than laying into Oxbridge dons.