THERE are no prizes for guessing which one of the proposals of the Scottish Government’s Commission on Widening Access caused many right-wing commentators to suffer a mass convulsive meltdown earlier this week. The commission was established partly to address one of the more tragic of the many iniquities that still beset life in modern Scotland. This is the one whereby the chances of children from our most disadvantaged communities gaining access to our top universities can be rated in two categories: none and next to none.

The commission’s proposal, that entrance qualifications ought to be lowered for children from these neighbourhoods, is fair, just and moral. If it can be made to work it will begin to redress the centuries of social and cultural gerrymandering that has always ensured that power and influence in Scotland will be wielded from within a very small and inaccessible group of people. This little tributary of inequality feeds into a larger one that says that, if you are born poor in this country, there are many forces conspiring together to ensure that you will remain poor when you die.

The sirens of the Right could be heard all over the country when this proposal was aired: it will diminish the achievements of middle class pupils; whom do you deem poor enough to receive this boon?; it shouldn’t all be about access to university. I always laugh when I hear people say that university isn’t for everyone and that we should be increasing the number of modern apprenticeships and vocational training opportunities. In nearly every instance the person who is saying this already has a degree or two from a top university and that sound you hear accompanying his words is similar to someone trying to pull up a ladder promptly behind them.

Anyone who questions the essential decency of what is being proposed by the commission ought to be reminded of a story which The Herald carried last May. This was about Joanne Martin, an 18-year-old pupil from Possilpark, rated the second most deprived district in Scotland. After attending the local secondary school, Joanne gained enough academic qualifications to study medicine at four of Scotland’s leading universities. Her mother, who worked as a cleaner, did not earn enough to purchase her daughter expensive lessons from a maths tutor.

She was rejected by all of them. Eventually, one of them consented to let her in, but only after she had added an Open University course to her CV. She should have been embraced by every one of those universities. Her grades were achieved without the expensive little accoutrements and advantages that rich parents and a private education routinely get you. As such, Joanne’s qualifications were worth more than those gained by one of her competitors from St Aloysius or Hutcheson’s. That these schools are exempt from tax owing to their charitable status turns a wretchedly unfair situation into a grotesque one.

Of course, simply according a bit more weight to a poor child’s Higher grades isn’t going to unstitch the pattern of unfair privilege and inequality. Those who oppose every small, progressive step do so, not because they care overmuch about the education of our children, but because they care about ensuring that only the "right sort" get their manicured mitts onto the levers of power.

Fair competition lies at the heart of Conservative political philosophy in this country. The market is king, we are told, and any attempt to bend it or tweak it to produce a desired outcome must be resisted. It’s the law of the jungle where only the fittest survive. Yet, the adherents of this philosophy have been bending it and fixing it to produce their own desired outcome for generations.

They deploy a private school caste system reinforced by the elitism of our top universities to ensure that society plays only by their rules. We think we’re living in a democracy but do you really think that something as uncertain and unpredictable as ‘"democracy" is going to be allowed to disrupt this ancient way of doing things?

You may also think that access to a few universities by a relatively small number of people isn’t such a great issue in the grand scheme of things. These, though, are the places that produce the vast majority of those who influence our lives and shape our society. If you want that influence to be fairer and less insidious than it is at present you need to care about why a tiny elite wants to ensure that as few people as possible from disadvantaged communities wield power.

Last month, a survey by the Sutton Trust showed people with a private education are much more likely to go to the top of British public life. Barely seven per cent of the population attend fee-paying schools, yet those who do are disproportionately represented in the most important sectors of civic and public life. More than 70 per cent of top military officers were educated privately with only 12 per cent from comprehensive schools. This makes a great deal of sense. For, if you had too many of hoi polloi making decisions about life and death, they might be less willing to risk the lives of the British state’s traditional cannon fodder.

The survey also found that pay rises faster for privately educated graduates, and that in the legal profession 74 per cent of leading judges working in the high court and appeals court were privately educated. In my own trade, journalism, more than half of our most influential writers went to independent schools. Only one in five received a comprehensive education, a system that educates almost 90 per cent of the rest of the population. In politics, half of the cabinet is privately-educated. So there you have it: when you’ve got the legislature, the judiciary, the military and the propaganda all under control your power base is well-nigh impregnable.

If you think the pattern of privilege stops at the Scottish Border, think again. Around three-quarters of top judges were privately educated in a country where only around four per cent of the population attends these facilities.

The people who really run this country have a lot of influence to lose and they’re not about to give it up easily by making it easier for children from the edgier districts to set about them. If we’re serious about fairness, and I mean really serious, then let’s keep forcing the gates of our universities to open wider. And let’s stop squandering the nation’s charitable largesse on the establishments that least deserve it.