The Government has gone to great lengths to restrict acces to university. Where was Willetts’s concern for the disadvantaged then?

The Independent, Friday 4 January 2013

The Universities Minister’s professed concern for white working class boys is risible

Almost three years after it was elected, I can’t pretend that the Coalition government has many achievements to its name. But I think I’ve spotted one that’s been overlooked, namely the rapid progress it’s making towards a society in which virtually everyone belongs to a competing minority. By the time of the general election in 2015, millions of people will have been identified as a social issue and have their very own government policy.

Benefit claimants, single parents, the disabled, the elderly and the chronically sick: one minister or another will have claimed them and come up with a more or less painful solution to all their problems. Judging by past performance, the Government will also manage to blame them for their own predicament and require someone, preferably not ministers, to do something about it.

Obviously, this doesn’t apply to that very special minority of people with comfortable living standards who live in and around Chipping Norton. That’s because it’s everyone else’s fault, the amazing number of troublesome minorities the Government has discovered, and the latest group to be redefined in this way is working-class white boys.

Alarmed by a dramatic reduction in applications from this sub-section of the school population for college places – and I wonder how on earth that could have come about – the Universities minister, David Willetts, wants them to be treated like an ethnic minority. “I do worry about what looks like increasing underperformance by young men,” he has said.

Willetts believes that teenage white boys from a working-class background should be included as target groups for recruitment in access agreements, which universities have to sign in order to be allowed to charge higher fees. The Office for Fair Access is able to take into account ethnicity and social class, “so I don’t see why they couldn’t look at white, working-class boys,” Willetts told The Independent yesterday.

I suppose it’s a change to have working-class white boys as problem of the week – it’s usually black boys failing at school and getting involved in knife crime – but it’s also a convenient way of diverting attention from the real issue. Working-class boys have been under-performing at school for years, a fact that’s reflected in greater numbers of girls applying for university places. In some subjects, such as law, medicine and dentistry,
they outnumber boys to a startling extent.

Now, though, demand for university places from both sexes is falling, just as critics said it would when the government introduced a steep hike in fees last October. Applications are down for the second year running but the slump is much greater among young men. It’s the “culmination of a decades-old trend in our education system which seems to make it harder for boys and men to face down the obstacles in the way of learning,” Willetts observed sadly. I rather like Willetts, who is affable and regarded in some quarters as suspiciously clever for a Tory. I can even imagine him shaking his head over the apparently inexplicable inability of boys to act in their own interests.

But this is sticking-plaster stuff, a diversion from the fact that ministers have just made a chronic and well-known problem much worse. Of course, tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year are putting off applicants from working-class families, where there is no tradition of starting working life with huge debts. Would I have gone to university if I’d had the prospect of emerging with terrifying levels of repayments for the next couple of decades? Of course not, and I’d have missed an education that’s stood me in good stead for years.

There’s no doubt that the fees are exacerbating class divisions in education: entry rates for 18-year-olds from advantaged areas are three to four times higher than those from disadvantaged areas, according to Professor Les Ebdon, the director of the Office for Fair Access. But the Government’s policy can’t be questioned, no matter how dire its effects, so working-class white boys have to be separated off and given special status. Then it’s the universities’ problem, not the Government’s, even if the analysis makes no sense: the problem of working-class boys’ under-performance starts long before the age of 18 or 19, when high achievers are thinking about heading to university. Dumping it in the lap of universities also risks discriminating against working-class girls who’ve worked hard at school and find themselves, unusually, among the better-off in this argument.

Under-representation in university applications is just the final stage in a lengthy process. The consequences of failing at school are dire, for individuals and society as a whole, as working-class boys from a variety of ethnic backgrounds fail to get qualifications, become teenage fathers, and, in some cases, end up in prison. The failures of the state-school system in this respect show up dramatically in the prison population, where 95 per cent of inmates are male.

Half of male prisoners have a reading ability at or below the level expected of an 11-year-old, and a staggering four-fifths have a writing ability at or below this level. Half have been excluded from school and have no qualifications. The same proportion are fathers, which means their problems with illiteracy and low achievement are likely to be passed on to the next generation.

Experts and politicians have spent years coming up with theories to explain these educational failures but the most obvious factor is poverty. Teenage boys from poor families tend not to value education, and their schools don’t have the resources to challenge so many connected problems. They also have competing models of masculinity, linked to sexual performance conspicuous consumption and violence. Ofsted has identified the problem succinctly as the lure of the three Fs: fighting, football  and fucking.

Getting more working-class kids into university is something I’m very keen on. But it shouldn’t be done by setting boys and girls from working-class backgrounds against each other, which is what Willetts’s proposal could end up doing. It’s a popular tactic under this Government, which has been picking off vulnerable minorities ever since it came to power in 2010. Once people have been divided up into competing groups, the Government can just sit back and watch as they fight for scarce resources.


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