IN a speech last week, Damian Hinds, England's Education Secretary, said that it is “not acceptable” that 18-year-olds from the most prosperous areas are “still nearly five and a half times more likely” to go to the most selective universities than disadvantaged students, and that the universities “need to go further” to promote access.

Following Newton’s Third Law, Tim Bradshaw of the Russell Group called on the Government to make more money available, rather than “putting all the blame on universities”. His suggestion for widening access was maintenance grants, rather than loans, for the poorest students.

There’s a sort of economic law at work here, too. The customer demands results (in this case, better access for poorer students) as a return on payment, while the provider says the desired result can’t be achieved for that cost.

The differences in university funding across the UK complicated matters. The Scottish Government is committed (until Alex Salmond’s taxpayer-funded rock outside Heriot-Watt University melts with the sun) to paying tuition fees for Scottish students and must thus do the same for EU students, unless they are English. For, you know, reasons.

That money comes from taxpayers, including non-graduates. In practice, the English loan system may not be all that different. In theory it amounts to a graduate tax; a salary deduction of nine per cent for most of a graduate’s working life, with the lowest earners having their payments indefinitely deferred.

In practice, it’s worse, because – on current projections – taxpayers, including non-graduates, will write off 80 per cent of the student loan book at the end of the 30-year term, handing the money (£110 billion and rising at 10 per cent a year) to the banks.

Even Jeremy Corbyn’s plan (since dropped) to write off English student loans was better, since it would at least have avoided the interest payments. Had it been affordable, which it wasn’t.

It’s not clear, though, that the Scottish system, despite its egalitarian intentions, is an improvement. In fact, it’s clear that it’s not, if access to universities by the most deprived young people is the aim. In England, the poorest students are 2.4 times less likely to go to university, and in Wales and Northern Ireland three times less likely. In Scotland, it’s four times less likely.

Because politicians and university administrators tend to be bureaucrats, the row about access for the poorest students and those from minority backgrounds is usually focused on considerations such as social mobility. That’s not the central function of a university, though, even if it is a desirable by-product.

Cardinal Newman, for example, in The Idea of the University, argued that they should provide reflection and instruction to foster “the culture of the intellect”; putting the emphasis on universal scope of study, rather than universality of access.

Purists or, if you prefer, elitists, may argue that personal intellectual development is what matters at university. Unfortunately for them, the customers, whether it’s the Government or students themselves, don’t seem to agree. And when you expect financial or social gains, you calculate costs.

Since at least the time of Plato, whose name is still very occasionally bandied about in lecture rooms, there has been a prevailing notion that education is a matter of concern not just to children and parents, but to the whole of society – and that society gains from its utility and should be involved in its provision.

Theorists differed on how; Rousseau and his much later disciple John Dewey went for the anti-intellectual, child-centred approach. John Stuart Mill wanted universal education to be required by the state, but on no account to be provided by it.

A depressing number of teachers and lecturers were persuaded by the Marxist view that education is a vital weapon in the class war or, since the 1960s, by the post- or neo-Marxist analytic approach, where the crucial thing is to allow students to develop their own values. The subsequent growth of relativism and disregard for objective truth or free speech now evident in some universities is the result.

But plenty of liberals, Whigs and traditional conservatives valued social mobility as an educational outcome, too (though to protect and expand the bourgeoisie, rather than to overthrow it). That accounts for the Tory enthusiasm for grammar schools. And, by all objective measures, social mobility in 20th century Britain, coinciding with universal education, was much higher than in many other countries.

The problem for our current university system is that, since the expansions of the Major and Blair governments, the supposed advantages education provides for social and financial advancement have been much more widely offered, and expected.

When only 10 or 15 per cent of the population attended university, fees and grants could come from general taxation, and though it was a raw deal for those who didn’t go but footed the bill, the overall benefit could be thought reasonable. If a majority go to university, it is much more unfair that the (almost certainly poorer) minority of the population who don’t end up shouldering the costs.

The current arrangement is unsatisfactory; graduates (even in Scotland) have huge debts but, because there are so many of them, no longer always get – though many still expect – better-paid jobs that were the norm until the early 1990s. A degree is now required for plenty of poorly-paid jobs, and is no guarantee of social or financial advancement.

The Russell Group, in a way, embodies that. It’s the UK’s most successful and, generally, oldest universities, including Glasgow and Edinburgh (though not St Andrews, which figures high in league tables, but isn’t a member). It’s, by and large, the university system as it was before 1994.

One solution that preserves their academic elitism and admission standards while encouraging access for more deprived students is to combine the maintenance grant and free tuition by expanding a system most of these universities have long operated: open competitive bursaries. The difficulty is that those from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to fare less well in such tests, because they have been poorly taught at school.

But – assuming universities can lay their hands on some brainy people to do it – tests can be designed to identify potential as well as existing knowledge. Where necessary, they could be supplemented with initiatives already provided by some universities, such as summer schools and foundation courses, to allow wider access. Devise, in other words, scholarships that don’t compromise scholarship.