Ashley Perks tries to understand what David Willetts is talking about.
WHITE working-class boys should be treated as ethnic minorities in order for them to be able to get easier access to university, according to David Willetts. Talking to The Independent, the Minister of State for Universities and Science said he would suggest the inclusion of white, working-class boys as a target group for recruitment in university access agreements, which universities have to sign to gain permission to charge higher fees, in a meeting with Professor Les Ebdon, the director of Offa.
To be frank, I’m not so sure white working-class boys would appreciate being lumped in with student candidates from outside the EU or their UK resident immigrant peers, for that matter. The whole fiasco at London Metropolitan University should serve as a warning: in this dreadful example of the collective punishment of more than 2500 students caught in the crossfire of a war between the university administration and the United Kingdom Border Agency (UKBA), their studies, their livelihoods and their prospects were thrown into uncertainty.
The problem is, as usual, being looked at through the wrong end of the telescope: the issue is not about universities making it easier for a certain social sector to obtain entry, but that many schools are failing students across the board. Dr Wendy Platt, director general of the Russell Group, which represents 24 top universities, said: “Universities cannot solve this problem alone. The root causes of the under-representation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds are underachievement at school and poor advice on the best choices of A-level subjects and university degree course.”
Writing in The Guardian (4 January), Ian Silvera draws the comparison: “I was not surprised when the universities minister proposed that universities in England should “treat white working-class boys the same as ethnic minorities”. In 2010, Lord Mandelson, then New Labour business secretary, argued that top universities should lower their entry requirements for disadvantaged applicants by as much as two A-level grades. He openly queried: “Why are we still making only limited progress in widening access to higher education to young people from poorer backgrounds?” It seems that Willetts has come to the same, deluded conclusion: schools should not improve their performance, but universities should lower their grades.”
Education Secretary, Michael Gove, is attempting to do the former by retrofitting education to a 1950s pedagogical approach (for Matriculation read Ebacc!), and restricting architectural design to curveless, Soviet Block style buildings, at two thirds the optimum cubic space per person (and half the cost)! Willetts’ conflation of the latter problem into an amalgamation of white working-class boys with ethnic minority pupils in the same boat will give birth to a Siamese twin situation, which will then require ‘political surgery’ later to separate the conjoined identities.
Everton is eight. He’s having a tough time at school. Although from the Caribbean, he’s having trouble getting a visa to stay in the UK while his mother is working here, with permission, until the end of this year. Dad is away serving in the UK armed forces abroad, and Everton really wants to stay with his mum rather than where he is currently with elderly grandparents increasingly unable to provide proper care. Fortunately, a judge has ruled he can stay with his mum. Unfortunately, Theresa May’s Home Office has got wind of it and are appealing against the ruling. Hang the expense, the work involved, the distress to the boy and his family: the priority for the HO is to keep an ‘immigrant’ schoolchild out of the UK for a year in line with coalition guarantees to get tough on immigration; tough on the causes of immigration…like being born.
Coupled with the London Met case, the trouble brewing is obvious if white working-class boys are to be equated with black/brown any-class boys. There is now a clamour from the academic world to discount students and boarding school pupils from the immigration figures. It is apparently full of advantages for the government as it struggles to meet the draconian ‘tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands’ immigration target. However, it does risk establishing discrimination between ‘good’ migrants (to the point that they would no longer be migrants!) and the others. Willetts’ half-witted notion (odd for a man alleged to have two brains) of incorporating WWCBs into the scheme risks setting brother against brother or classmates against one another and offering Ukip and the disciples of the Daily Mail enough red meat to chew on for the rest of the year.
With Theresa May’s continuing incompetence in the matter of deporting Abu Qatada – to the point of him asking for a new house and the right of his family to join him – the logical extension of the Willetts wheeze – applied across the board – would be for Category A, white, British prisoners to make absurd demands, citing Abu Qatada’s case as jurisprudence! (Well, almost!)
What I want to know is this: how many white working-class boys would be able to pass the English language requirement? While the UKBA insists that it only wants to test an applicant’s listening and speaking skills (have you heard British teenagers actually speak to you or ever got them to listen?), the majority of the exams also test reading, writing and computer literacy. With the exception of computer literacy (accomplished from the age of 5 – all classes and colours combined) the rest of the disciplines are likely to be easier for ethnic minority applicants, according to like-for-like statistics.
The facts and figures are available in black and white. Willetts’ typical Tory trick of mixing matters into a murky grey so as to obscure incompetence will serve neither black nor white.
Follow Ashley on Twitter: @StRemeze
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