The Tory leadership race has descended into slapstick politics, and it seems to have no boundaries. In the past week the two candidates have behaved like cliche-spouting populists on the stump, rather than responsible members of a party still in office. The latest excursion of the frontrunner Liz Truss – supposedly the nation’s foreign secretary – into education policy defies belief.
She proposes that Oxford and Cambridge be forced to interview for a place any high-flying student in the country with three A* grades at A-level. She says it is wrong that “you should have to put yourself forward” for these places. She might have added, God forbid that you should have to go somewhere like Leeds University – a fate she escaped by shuttling off to Merton College, Oxford. Her proposal would involve some 13,000 Oxbridge interviews from England alone, swamping and distorting the admissions system (assuming candidates can afford to await their exam results, rather than taking up conditional offers elsewhere), and discouraging applicants with less than three A*.
The idea puts a further premium on exam performance as an indicator of future success, a facile obsession that has little to do with education: Truss has long been bowled over by exam-centric Chinese schools. Worse, it cements the elitist assumption that Oxbridge should be further assisted to cream off the top achievers each year to attain ever greater heights of academic quality and status. It is hard to believe Truss would have made this proposal had she been a graduate of Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham or Durham.
Universities do have a role in social engineering and should try to widen their social base. But that applies to them all. In some parts of Britain they are the most potent agency of the ailing levelling-up agenda. They bring creativity and talent, public money and graduate employment to regions from which they have been drained over the past half century. It is these places that need the brightest students if they are to compete nationally and internationally. The government should not seek to suck them dry of a few hundred A* students a year to further boost the egos of Oxford and Cambridge.
British university policy is already a victim of chaotic dirigisme. The prejudice against the humanities, the wasteful bureaucracy of science research, the lockdown legacy of virtual versus in-person teaching, all suggest a sector of the economy woefully in need of rethinking.
Oxford and Cambridge are focusing ever more of their efforts on postgraduates and research. It is possible that eventually they may even discontinue undergraduate teaching altogether. For the time being policy should not discourage bright school-leavers from attending their local university or other centres of excellence, let alone to promote Oxbridge elitism.
Such vacuous and ill-thought-out ideas are spouting daily from the Truss camp – forcing the hapless Rishi Sunak into imitation. This is no way to choose a responsible prime minister in a time of economic distress. The Conservative party is doing the country a disservice.