Sir Martin Harris, director of the Office for Fair Access to University, starts work today.
He shouldn’t bother. If New Labour were serious about widening access to university, it would scrap this managerialist gimmick, and follow the policy in Texas.
Texas House Bill 588 requires that the University of Texas offer places to all students who graduate in the top 10 per cent of their schools.
Now, this isn’t rigorously egalitarian, because students outside the top 10 per cent can compete for other places, a competition which favours those from better schools.
But it does mean no-one is heavily penalized for going to a bad school. However bad a school, 10 per cent of its graduates will get to university.
In this way, the law promotes equality of opportunity in John Roemer’s sense. People are held accountable for things they can control (their studiousness and effort) but not for things they cannot control, such as the quality of school they attend.
Anyone who believes in equality of opportunity – as Michael Howard, leader of the Stupid Party, incredibly claims to – should therefore applaud Texas’s law.
It is obviously superior to the clichéd calls to raise the standards in sink schools. Such calls are counsels of perfection; would be colossally expensive to implement; and – most importantly – do nothing to improve the life-chances of those who have already spent years at them.
This raises some interesting questions. One is: how could it be used in the UK? One possibility is to use GPAs or SATs tests as the criteria for university admissions. Another would be to apply the 10 per cent law (or a variant thereof) to A level marking.
Another question is: would this reduce the quality of university students? This lengthy report suggests it hasn’t done so in Texas.
A more interesting question concerns the strategic effects of this policy. Middle-class parents might respond by trying to get Tarquin or Clytemenestra into sink schools.
Leave aside the comedy value of this. (Though comedy value does seem to be a legitimate motive for legislation these days – how else can we explain calls to ban fox-hunting?) Would this be good or bad? It would be bad, to the extent that it reduces life-chances for students from genuinely deprived backgrounds. But it would be good, if it improves social cohesion or raises the standards of those worst schools.
There is, though, a fourth question. Why aren’t there calls for the UK to emulate or improve upon Texas’s policy? Why is it that a state regarded by sanctimonious Groan-writers as the home of redneck reactionaries is in fact more egalitarian than New Labour? (In fact, Texas is also the home of Terry Allen, Guy Clark the Late Great Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle, but leave that aside.)
There’s a simple answer. New Labour and Groan-writers aren’t really egalitarian at all. Their concern for the worst-off stops at anything that threatens the privileges of the moronic middle-class. Can you think of anything more threatening to them than a policy that really promotes truly bright people?
Also, Texans aren’t as stupid as Groan-writers think. They know that inequalities of wealth and income can only be justified (if they can be justified at all) if everyone has an opportunity to acquire them. The British political class, by contrast, doesn’t seem interested in justifying inequality.