Sunday, 9 January 2011

Simon Hughes: Moron or Machiavelli?

Perhaps in an attempt to temper his criticism of the Government's higher education policy, which I wrote about here, the Coalition have incorporated Simon Hughes into the fray as an advisor on the topic. This was probably a mistake for the Coalition and certainly for Nick Clegg, because Simon Hughes is either a moron or a Machiavellian. Either way, his presence and the populist decrees that come out of his mouth are as dangerous as they are foolish. I wonder though if he is genuinely trying to alter Government policy on higher education of if he is merely positioning himself as the next leader of the Lib Dems after the kicking he believes Nick Clegg is leading the party towards.

We shall get onto the whys and wherefores of Hughes' bizarre thoughts on higher education, but first let us look at what he says. Hughes has decided on two main threads to his argument, and it is hard to work out which is more idiotic.

1. That there should be quotas forced upon universities to limit the number of private-educated school children who are admitted.

2. That higher education has 'failed miserably' to take on a fair proportion of state school students.

In case you were uncertain of my views on this, on which side of the fence I sit, I consider this argument to be one of the most anti-aspirational, negative, idiotic, illogical and counter-productive you could ever conjure up.

Mr Hughes thinks that the private/state school-educated make-up of the student body in higher education should exactly mirror the private/state school-educated make-up of the country. So in his mind, we should go from over 25% to 7% - that is, remove over 18% of the students in higher education on the basis that they were private-educated and replace them with state-educated students. He thinks that this should be and will be enshrined in law, and that this will "allow the recruitment process to work better."

Now what does Mr Hughes mean by work better? On what fantastic advice has he decided that the best thing for UK PLC would be this exact quota of state- and private-educated students? I am sure he's done his research properly, for one would hate to think a Government advisor and deputy leader of one of the Governing parties would jump into such an important debate with just soundbites and votes in mind. It surely can't be possible that Hughes would spout some liberal nonsense to curry favour with the three or four remaining Lib Dem supporters knowing his twaddle to be ideologically pleasing to them but that it will ultimately be ignored because it is ill-thought out and utterly wrong for the country?

Let us be clear on one thing - there should be no quotas. Not just in education, but in everything, employment, the lot. They are insidious. It is the very essence of unfair discrimination. If you want the best, you need a meritocracy. If you go for a quota, you all but guarantee variance from meritocracy. They are evil and wrong. Clear?

On his second point, universities have not failed to take on enough state school students. I was at university a few years back and they were bending over backwards to encourage state school students to apply. Under the constant barrage from Government and press, Oxbridge in particular, I cannot imagine they have since receded from this stance. Ultimately what has failed is the state system. It has consistently failed to realise the potential of many if not most of its charges. Many state school students do well at school and subsequently at university. The problem are the very many who struggle to challenge academically from school, grade for grade, because of the failings of the state system. Hughes and his true yellow Lib Dem supporters, to whom he panders with this crap, are going down the same incorrect road travelled by the Labour Party.

Private schools are efficient. They do not always get the best raw product, but they are brilliant at unleashing their potential and marketing them. That's why they are still in business. This is admirable, not deplorable. It is what we would like the state school system to do too. To penalise those who can afford (or quirkily can't afford: the poor but talented who get bursaries at private schools would be penalised by this crap proposal) private education is utterly wrong, morally and logically. It is the politics of class envy (which I spoke about here and here), and can lead only to drag down those to whom we should aspire.

I could go on with how utterly idiotic this statement by Hughes is, but you get the idea. In summary - there's a reason we pay for higher education, and it's not out of some altruistic desire for all to have the chance of bettering themselves. It is from a selfish desire to make the country better. For that, the best need to go to university. That will not always be those with the best grades, but simply limiting those who get good grades is not the answer. Admissions must be improved in terms of potential talent vs results, but also the state must improve. It must improve in both realising the potential of its children and also in encouraging them to apply, for much of the negative feeling on 'university is not for me' comes from negative teachers.

If you think you're unsure of whether I'm right or Simon Hughes, perhaps look to the Russell Group. They represent the top universities in the country, were you unaware. Unsurprisingly, they also view the idea of quota-based admissions to be farcical - "admission is and should be based on merit" (Dr Wendy Platt, Director General of the Russell Group). Oh, and incidentally, quite the one for pulling up the ladder up which you have ascended, Hughes was privately schooled in Wales before heading to Selwyn College, Cambridge.

So now onto why an MP for 27 years can come up with such total and utter rubbish…

Either he genuinely believes all that he says, in which case he is a moron, or he is saying it for party political reasons. Now I'm open to either. The case for the former is rather detailed in the many boring paragraphs above. For the case for the latter, read on…

Hughes has not taken a Cabinet position, despite clearly having the political weight to demand one in the big Coalition Cabinet Chop-up. Yet the lighterweight Huhne, Alexander and Laws all ended up with posts ahead of him. Why? In my opinion, because Hughes prefers the politics of the minority opposition. That is, he likes that being a Lib Dem means that he can take the moral high ground on every point of governance safe in the knowledge he will never have to face the harsh realities of implementing his policies against the economic and social position of the day. These are the lessons that Nick Clegg is learning now. Thus, Hughes in taking the deputy leader job whilst spurning the Coalition and mouthing off against all the Coalition policies that make Nick Clegg most uncomfortable, is setting himself up for the big non-job next time. Or he's a moron. You decide.

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