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Ryan Henson: Simon Hughes ought to be focusing on improving state schools, not encouraging universities to discriminate against those from private schools

Picture 1 Ryan Henson is currently studying History at Queen Mary, University of London.

Simon Hughes, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, has begun life as the government's advisor on access to higher education, by making a speech calling on universities to reduce their intake of privately educated pupils. In what appears to be a straightforward attempt to repair Liberal Democrat morale after the trauma of the tuition fee protests, Hughes, who is not a member of the Government, claims universities are "failing miserably" to reflect society.

Let me start by making one thing absolutely clear: students from all backgrounds, rich or poor, young or old, regardless of gender or ethnicity, deserve an equal chance to go to university. Currently, students from poorer backgrounds are less likely to go to university compared to students from better-off backgrounds. This isn't fair. It's good news, then, that the Coalition has appointed Simon Hughes, and it's encouraging to see this issue being taken seriously by the new Government.

Sadly, though, Hughes is wrong to suggest the problem would be solved by encouraging universities to discriminate against privately-educated students.  

If we accept the statement, that all students, regardless of background, deserve an equal chance of going to university, then why should universities be allowed to punish students fortunate enough to have received a private education? Admission to university should remain as it is: based on merit and ability.  Hughes is right to highlight the problem, but wrong in his approach to solving it.

As a current undergraduate, I would be ashamed if I discovered that my place at university had been awarded to me at the expense of a better qualified student, regardless of how or where they were educated. Universities take more students from private schools because private schools provide a better standard of education.

Instead of punishing private schools for being successful, we should be focusing on raising standards in state schools so that all students, regardless of background, fulfil their true potential. I don't claim it will be easy. I'm not suggesting it will be straightforward. But we should not punish private schools for their success. If universities follow Hughes' advice, we may as well punish everyone in society who dares to aspire and achieve: the very people who want to go to university in the first place.

Fortunately, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has begun to tackle the problems in the state education sector by making it easier for parents to set up "free schools" and so remove their children from failing comprehensives. However, as Gove is prepared to admit, there is still much to be done. Students from the state sector want to go to university, and they want to get there on merit. Students from state schools are just as bright and just as capable as students from private schools.

Simon Hughes must accept that most state schools aren't matching the standards found in the private sector. Hughes must also accept that this isn't the fault of students from private schools. Students who have worked hard to gain a place at university should not be discriminated against. The problem lies with state schools, not private schools. Focus on state schools, Mr Hughes. Fix them, and you fix the problem.


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