It is an axiom of modern British governance that if a policy does not achieve its stated aims, one does not conclude that the policy has failed but rather that it requires greater rigor in implementation. Thus, if educational policies aimed at creating a more equal society have brought about a more unequal one, we must strengthen and extend them.
For example, the abolition of selective public secondary schools, on the grounds that they were socially divisive, resulted in a sudden halving of the proportion of public school students at the best universities. The reason is easy to discern: a catastrophic fall in academic standards in the public schools. The mingling of the brightest and the best with the dimmest and the worst has not uplifted the dim and worst; it has brought down the bright and best. Only someone with little knowledge of humanity, and of youth in particular, would have expected anything different.
Though Prime Minister Tony Blair recently bought a house in London for $5.5 million, the Labour government he heads remains demagogically obsessed by the need to appear to be promoting social equality. It has set quotas for universities for the admission of students from the lower (and lowest) social strata. Universities that fail to meet the targets will receive fines, as 17 of them recently did. Those schools' admissions proved too bourgeois—that is, not sufficiently socially inclusive.
The purpose of universities, on the government's view, is not to educate or to stimulate scholarship and research: it is to kindle the self-esteem of the underclass. Whether this result flows from the raising of academic achievement among the poor or the lowering of it among the rich is a matter of complete indifference to the government. Since the second approach is far easier, it has taken place.
Except, oddly enough, in Northern Ireland, where “socially divisive” selective secondary education still exists. We see no decline there in the proportion of university students coming from the poorest homes: in fact, it is the highest in the country. In other words, high academic standards and firm discipline favor the poor.
Not that the government will heed this lesson: What has progressive England to learn from backward Ireland? Besides, soon it will not matter who gets a university education: the universities will have become so corrupted that degrees will be worthless. In a desperate and short-term attempt to generate income, for example, British universities now routinely sell their degrees to gullible foreigners. I teach a university course on toxicology, with about half the class made up of foreign students. Here is the university-set standard for a passing essay of 50 percent (actually 46 percent, since teachers must round marks upward, to the nearest multiple of five): “A just satisfactory answer that may omit some major points; incomplete but showing some sound knowledge and limited understanding; some errors.”
After all, no one wants to pay $30,000 a year in tuition just for the opportunity to fail.