LONDON — Gordon Brown, the British chancellor of the Exchequer, has been stirring up media attention by attacking the way in which Oxford and other British universities recruit students. He launched his diatribe against the universities by condemning Magdalen College Oxford (where Prince Chichibu and Prince Tomohito of Mikasa studied) for not accepting an able pupil from a state school to study medicine. The college pointed out that there were many more applicants than places available and others had equally good grades. They noted that the girl in question, lacking self-confidence, did not do well in the final interview. Other able pupils from state schools were admitted to the college.

The chancellor of the Exchequer, unwisely in my view, used this case to declare war on “elitism.” His purpose seems to have been to please traditional labor supporters who have not yet been cured of the disease of “class warfare.” In the process, however, he offended many middle-income people who thought that “New Labor” was indeed pursuing new policies and had given up out dated ideas about class.

Some unkind observers have suggested that Brown, who would like to have been prime minister, together with John Prescott, the deputy prime minister who is a representative of “Old Labor,” were taking advantage of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s absence from the political scene while on paternity leave following the birth of his son Leo. If the media are to be believed, Blair who returned to work on June 5, wants to put a stop to this silly campaign. But such antics are unfortunately the stuff of party politics in a parliamentary democracy.

It is a pity that politicians tend to think that they know the meanings of words when in fact they do not. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines the term “elite” in the first instance as “the best or choice part of a larger group.” “Elitism” is defined as “advocacy of or reliance on leadership or dominance by a select group.” Neither definition suggests that the words should be used as terms of abuse.

In the inevitable absence of equality of ability, it is hard to see how any country can avoid relying on a few able people to provide leadership. These people inevitably form an “elite.” The only valid objection to rule by an elite is if entry into the elite is not open to talented people.

This immediately raises the question of equality of opportunity in education. Unfortunately, the fact is that in Britain standards of education in many private schools are better than in the state sector. Accordingly, children of parents who can afford to send their offspring to private schools generally have a better chance of entry into the elite. But Britain has changed hugely in the last half century. Class (or origin) matters much less than it did. Indeed, sometimes instances have been reported where boys and girls from private schools are discriminated against because of their origin. This is a kind of inverted snobbery.

Politicians now like to boast that they were educated in state schools and are of humble origins. The last three Conservative Party prime ministers and the present Conservative Party leader all justifiably make such claims. When Douglas Hurd, the former foreign secretary, was a prime ministerial candidate, the fact that he was at school at Eton, Britain’s most famous school for “aristocrats” was a negative factor for him.

The private sector in British education has grown as standards in the state sector declined. The government is now rightly putting a great deal of resources and effort into improving the state sector, but classes remain large and the fact that most state schools are “comprehensive,” i.e., schools open to all irrespective of ability, means that the ablest pupils have to struggle harder than they would have to in private schools, which select their pupils according to ability.

In private schools with smaller classes, pupils are coached carefully, often on a one-to-one basis, for university entrance and interview skills are taught as well as practiced. It is not surprising that if they achieve the same exam grades as state-sector pupils they do better in the final interviews. Many colleges are trying to compensate for this by giving greater weight to efforts by state-sector pupils.

The situation in Japan is different, but it seems that many parents seek to get their children into private educational institutions in which they can remain until they graduate from a private university. In Japan, children with educated parents and money who want their children to be successful send them to evening classes and employ private tutors. Such extra tutoring gives them an advantage over children whose parents cannot afford or prefer not to spend their resources in this way. Egalitarians who would ban such practices are illiberal and unreasonable.

The Japanese elite in the civil service and in the top echelons of business have tended to be from the premier state universities, especially Tokyo and Kyoto, where they studied law or economics. This situation seems to have been changing, not least because the prestige of senior civil-service jobs has fallen so significantly after the scandals of the last few years.

Perhaps, too, employers are beginning to recognize that the “examination hell” and the competitive “rat race” to enter the University of Tokyo does not necessarily make for the mature all-rounder needed to provide leadership in the 21st century.

Motivation is particularly important but the cultivation of personality and the development of social skills are equally essential. This is where the Japanese educational system has often failed in the past. Now, however, that so many bright young men and women are going abroad from Japan to study, this situation is changing. I hope that these people will not suffer reverse discrimination by a revival of Japanese nationalism.

An educational hierarchy of schools and universities exists everywhere. In the United States, the so-called “Ivy League” of top universities attract not only the best students but also the best academics. In France, the system of the “grandes ecoles” is the basis of the French elite.

A well-educated elite is essential for every country. In a parliamentary democracy there will be competition to join the elite and the electorate can at least ensure that one elite can be replaced by another. A democratic state will and should strive to ensure that entry to the elite is as open as possible and will endeavor to achieve reasonable equality of opportunity recognizing the real difficulties involved. But total equality is unachievable, even if it were desirable.

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