Targets are to Labour what alcohol and age are to the Lib Dems: a fatal weakness. From targets to cut NHS waiting times to inflation targets, they seem to have caused the country nothing but trouble. But the higher education sector seems to have been hit even harder than most.
The government aims to get 50% of all young people into higher education by 2010, and although there seems no hope of actually achieving that goal, universities might actually die trying. Admissions offices are swamped, and if public exams really are getting easier, they have no way of sifting the good from the unintelligent.
The government’s solution has been to inflate the importance of public examinations. A new A* grade at A-level for those who attain 90% or above will have been  introduced by 2010. Further to this, Edexcel is now suggesting a results analysis service which offers students, and potentially university admissions officers, full feedback on every exam question they answer.
In the face of accusations of elitism, Oxford is presented with specific difficulties. It cannot reverse Labour’s decision to put more pressure on sixth-form students by focusing on exam results. But it is obvious to everyone that independent school pupils do disproportionately better in exams than those at state school. The University needs to find a way to ignore results at a time when the government is trying to highlight them.
Everyone, from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) to the Times Good University Guide, recognises that Oxford is trying hard to widen access. But as our News Focus demonstrates, these good intentions have not so far been translated into a significant improvement in admissions statistics.
A Guardian article of 20 September reports that one third of Oxbridge students come from only 100 UK schools. Worse still, at Oxbridge’s five top feeder schools, four in ten students are successful in their application. You wont find a don in Oxford who doesn’t wish things were different, but the change has not yet been made.
Can Oxford ignore the money factor by sticking with tactics which have already failed it for twenty years? As the IPPR has only recently confirmed, they aren’t working. It issued a harsh but long overdue assessment this week, commenting that Oxford and Cambridge “will be judged on their attainment and not their effort”. It’s all very well promising to widen access, but targets are unmet and will remain so until at least 2016. By that time, a generation of university students will already be national leaders.
At first, interviews seem like a good way to level the field. By coming face-to-face with a candidate, tutors can try to bypass the unfair extra training paid for by some parents of private school candidates. But the advantage remains: if private school pupils can be trained to write essays in a way that appeals to higher educational styles, can they be trained to talk in the same way?
Many college interviews are designed to make 16- and 17-year-olds cry; if they don’t, the test is passed.
At the moment, positive discrimination is also at interviewers’ discretion, turning some colleges into state school refuges while others gain a reputation as public school havens. Perhaps it’s time to make affirmative action a positive policy at the Admissions Office. It seems to be working, as a temporary measure, to eliminate corporate and institutional racism. When inequalities are evened out, the less urgent issue of discrimination against private school pupils will reassert itself as an injustice.