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Sunday, 4 June, 2000, 09:12 GMT 10:12 UK
Labour widens attack on elitism
Prescott and Brown
Prescott and Brown: war on elitism
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has widened the government's assault on elitism at Oxbridge universities by attacking privilege in all areas of life.

Writing in the Independent On Sunday, Mr Prescott said he made no apology for saying too many doors remained closed to people "with the right talents but the wrong background".

But the former seaman added: "This debate is not fundamentally about universities, still less about any individual case.

"It is about whether Britain today still suffers from privilege getting in the way of merit and whether we can do more to enable our people to develop their talents to the full."


The Chancellor has done a great disservice to young people and damage to our universities

Shadow education secretary Theresa May

He also criticised lawyers who protest about civil liberties when new initiatives on crime are introduced.

Mr Prescott said: "Some lawyers squeal when we crack down on young thugs, but the reason we do it is to protect decent people whose life can be made miserable by mindless hooligans."

On Saturday Chancellor Gordon Brown was accused of using "class war" tactics in his attack on elitism at top British universities, which he said had failed to attract enough state pupils.

Mr Brown said "far-seeing Americans" accepted excellence and equal opportunity could be achieved together. But Tories have attacked his remarks.

'Irresponsible'

Former Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine said claims that elitism was hampering Britain's economy were "absolute rubbish".

He said: "We all know what the Labour Party is trying to do. It is desperately trying to re-enthuse its hard core old Labour activists and they have just gone back to class war techniques."

Shadow education secretary Theresa May said Mr Brown's criticism was "ill-informed, ill-judged and irresponsible".

Michael Heseltine
Michael Heseltine accuses the government of 'class war' tactics

She added: "You don't encourage young people in state schools to aspire to attend Oxford or other leading universities by telling them they won't make it.

"By creating an expectation of failure in search of a cheap political headline, the chancellor has done a great disservice to young people and damage to our universities. Frankly, he should be ashamed of himself."

The Oxbridge universities at the centre of the row have been defended by US education secretary Richard Riley, visiting the UK to discuss schools policy.

In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph, he praised them as "top quality" institutions which should not allow their standards to be undermined.

Quality control

In America, he said, people would be proud of the reputation of their top universities.

"They absolutely are considered in America to be outstanding universities; top grade - Oxford and Cambridge and a number of others."

Mr Riley said both universities should protect their world standing, and said: "If they became less quality, that would make me very sad.

"I don't think that is going to happen because people in higher education are very careful to maintain their quality."

His remarks could undermine the government's position as ministers have praised American institutions in comparison to Britain's top universities.

The elitism row was sparked by the case of North Tyneside comprehensive pupil Laura Spence, who won a Harvard scholarship after being rejected from Oxford.

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See also:

03 Jun 00 | UK Politics
Baroness 'lied' about schooling
02 Jun 00 | UK Politics
Prescott re-ignites universities row
31 May 00 | Education
Hague stokes elitism row
26 May 00 | UK Politics
Labour's 'class war' over Oxbridge
02 Jun 00 | UK Politics
Portillo joins elitist row
03 Jun 00 | UK Politics
Warring parties clash over elitism
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