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'Chucking children who can't swim into deep water to see which of them drowns soonest is no way to behave'

It used to be said that the first sign that you are getting old is when police officers seem awfully young. The proof that it's really happened is that retiring permanent secretaries and funding council chairmen who were long ago your students don't look old enough to hold such important jobs, let alone old enough to have left them. The departure of Sir Howard Newby induces other thoughts, too, of course. One is that if increasing amounts of university funding come from student fees, isn't that half of the Higher Education Funding Council for England's job taken away?

And if the rise of "full economic cost" research funding puts pressure on the dual-support system, won't that also diminish the role of Hefce? Will we slide towards a system in which the consumers of blue-skies research - government agencies and big charities such as the Wellcome Trust - cough up all the costs of research, and Hefce will be left to dish out a few capital grants for libraries, lecture halls and teaching labs? Many of the Bolshevik insurgents who took over Russia in the autumn of 1917 wanted to abolish the government they installed as soon as possible; perhaps we need an anarchist in charge of Hefce, not so much to be unkind to the Government as to be sincerely committed to doing himself out of a job.

One job that Hefce should give up anyway is "access". This is a delicate issue, so I put my cards on the table first. I have always supported affirmative action; and since the American evidence suggests that affirmative action students do much better at "top-tier" colleges and universities than anywhere else, I'd support it at Oxbridge and the rest of the Russell Group.

But it would have to be done properly; chucking children who can't swim into deep water to see which of them drowns soonest is no way to behave, and any decent affirmative action programme would need to provide a lot of supplementary training to get students up to speed if they weren't to go under.

It would have to be done with realistic expectations. Most affirmative action admissions would end their courses in the lower half of the examination rankings, even though many would not. They'd still be much better off than otherwise. It's no use thinking you could hand-pick an intake that could make up for years of less-than-stellar teaching in three years flat; where a degree course depends less on prior skills, it's less of a problem, but even there the effects of years of raised expectation on the advantaged and of lowered expectation on the disadvantaged are hard to eradicate.

So, why should Hefce take no interest in access? Mostly because the question is framed badly. There is almost no access issue. To the extent that there is one it is at the top end of secondary school performance, where there are too many students whose qualifications equip them for over-crowded courses in medicine, English and most other humanities subjects at Oxbridge, Bristol, Nottingham and the like.

Overall, there is room for everyone on a course that matches their skills and tastes with what's on offer. Access as such - the removal of obstacles in the way of people equipped for the course they want and ready to go where it's given - isn't the issue.

What is? Well, self-evidently the real issue is the transmission of social advantage through the usual channels. And it's no good thinking that Hefce can stand out against the trends that we all learnt in sociology.

Politicians have for years mistaken the postwar shift in the occupational structure of modern capitalist economies for increased social mobility - but there were no downwardly mobile middle-class children to speak of; what there was was a great expansion of white-collar jobs, and working-class children got many of them. I was one, and I'm grateful. But it was not the arrival of a fluid social system. So it's not surprising that manual working-class participation ratios in higher education are about a fifth of upper white-collar rates. And you can't hope for Hefce to work against a split-minded Government that simultaneously preaches the unimportance of equality - whether because the Prime Minister thinks we're all middle class now or because he believes in "trickle-down" economics - and demands equality of outcomes regardless.

Real affirmative action would at least raise aspirations, cheer up the Commission for Racial Equality and provide proper evidence of what is achievable. And it's almost certainly politically impossible.

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.

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