This argument is permeated by an old and lazy theme, that widening participation is a means of rescuing a few people from their class rather than a systematic attempt to address the social inequities embedded in our education systems.
Addressing social inequalities is a nice glib phrase, it trips off the tongue easily. Doing it is a little more troublesome. Even in a limited way, it demands an imaginative radicalism that seems in short supply at the moment. And that means making lifelong learning central. There are four broad issues that I think that policy makers need to consider.
1. Any attempt to select out "bright pupils" would instantly label the majority of those left out as incapable and unworthy - 'dim pupils'. It can be destructive.
2. That concentrating on schools and young people means ignoring the profound intergenerational effects of learning cultures. Not only do older people have a right to their own education, but they become powerful role models and advocates for learning throughout their families and communities.
3. There needs to be a recognition that people come to education at different ages and for different reasons. For example, some of the best work I have seen this year has come from prisoners who would never have dreamt of learning if it had not been for their incarceration.
4. And finally we come to that word 'aspiration'. Debate has been plagued by the lazy idea that people are deficient and need reforming by raising their aspiration. Credit where it is due, Milburn rejects this old turkey and is dead right when he says, "it is not that many young people do not have aspirations. It is that they are blocked".
There is plenty of aspiration out there, and not only in "young people", but it is coupled with a sense that higher education is 'not for the likes of us'. There is a reason for that. The cultures of some universities positively scream at people that it is not for the likes of them. It is universities that need to reform, to become more open, to involve themselves in the lives of everyone in their cities and regions. They have to meet the aspirations of people. They have to make dreams happen.
Simply opening the cracks into the elite so a few more of the hoi polloi can squeeze through achieves wonders for some individuals, but what of the others? A genuine commitment to lifelong learning, the engagement of universities with all their communities, the creation of open institutions that are easy to access in many different ways, creates possibilities for the many. And, as regular readers of this blog will now be tired of reading, it is this civic mission that is being strangled by stupid and destructive policies.