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March 06, 2003

Affirmative Action (a different kind)

This sound familiar? A lot of people who are against racial affirmative action tend to support class-based modes, well, think again....

British universities

Affirmative action, negative reaction

Mar 6th 2003
From The Economist print edition

The wrong way to go about getting more poor youngsters into universities

HELL hath no fury like a parent who has struggled to get its child decent schooling only to be faced with a government policy specifically designed to award the child's university place to somebody else. That's why affirmative action led to a decade of rioting in India in the 1980s; why after years of argument California abandoned it in 1996; and why America's Supreme Court may rule it unconstitutional next month. Now the British government is putting its finger into the fire.

What caste is to India and race is to America, class is to Britain. The government is concerned that, while 48% of the children of the top three social classes go to university, only 18% of the offspring of the bottom three do. In order to try to change this, it is giving universities a “postcode premium” on its grants of 5% (rising to 20% next year) for each student from a poor area, and earlier this year it announced plans to set up an “access regulator” to ensure that universities admit plenty of underprivileged children. On March 3rd, Margaret Hodge, the minister for higher education, said that the government was planning to set a national target for the proportion of working-class children which universities should admit. Universities already have individual targets (called “benchmarks”); nevertheless, Ms Hodge was swiftly slapped down by her boss, the education secretary, for this is a sensitive issue. Newspaper columnists mostly fall into the class of cross parents, so nothing, aside from war, is generating so much noise right now.

There are two reasons for trying to get universities to take more poor youngsters, one good, one bad. The bad reason—which Ms Hodge's enthusiasm for quotas gestures towards—is to find a quick fix for deeper social problems. Discriminating against clever, rich students to give thicker, poorer ones a leg-up is unfair and likely to damage higher education without improving society.

The good reason is to try to get more bright people to university. It seems quite likely that some clever, poor children are not getting as good a higher education as they should. Bristol, the university at the centre of the storm, says that, in their final exam, state-school pupils tend to outperform private-school pupils with equivalent A levels, which suggests that thicker private-school pupils are getting through the admissions system. It would not be surprising. A levels were never a brilliant method for screening people, and grade inflation has made them worse, because too many pupils now get excellent results. This year Bristol got 500 applications from pupils with straight As for the 47 places in its English department.

Don't shoot the universities

If the government's aim is to find out which children are clever, and which have been crammed, then setting up quotas or discriminating against people on the basis of their postcode is not the way to go about it. A better screening system is needed (see article).

But this is not the real answer to the problem of poor pupils' underperformance. Low working-class participation in higher education is not, primarily, the universities' fault. They have become the scapegoat for state schools' failings. But sorting out schools is not something that can be done quickly. Starting in the anti-elitist 1960s it took two decades to get rid of a selective secondary system which, despite its faults, gave poor, clever children a real chance. It will take longer than that to rebuild one.

Posted by razib at 02:23 PM

Bullshit! California didn't ban affirmative action any more than did Texas. They simply found an end around explicit quotas. Here in Texas minorities receive points for being bilingual, or having a parent whose schooling ended with the fifth grade. Since most Mexicans have, on average, a sixth grade education, you can easily surmise who benefits from this. Ditto for the bilingualism.

Posted by: Roger Chaillet at March 6, 2003 08:18 PM

As an academic with strong interests in university acceptance procedures, I have been following the debates around the British university system for some time. However, what the writer of this article does not understand is that the efforts to expand access to universities, especially the top-ranked ones, is not about "Discriminating against clever, rich students to give thicker, poorer ones a leg-up."

The truth is that the current system of national exams mean that thick rich students, with plenty of resources and coaching, have a much better chance of getting into university than bright poor students. For all their praise of a meritocracy, what so many critics of current policies do not understand (or perhaps do not wish to admit) is that test scores do not necessarily reflect merit.

The recent decision by the University of Bristol to give some consideration to the environment of its applicants is the recognition that potential is more important to a university career than secondary school success. Who is the brighter student, who will benefit more from university? The pupil who pulls off an A and two B's in a school without adequate materials or possibly teaching, who may have to work part-time and yet who still learns and does well on national exams, despite what is set against them? Or the pupil from an independent private school, who, with abundant resources and full parental and teacher support, receives two A's and a B? (Yes, the difference is that small). This pupil has performed better on "objective" exams, and yet has done so in a much easier environment. We would never fault a racer running uphill for being slower than his competition running on the flat ground; why then do we assume that we can judge students so?

The recognition of merit means recognising merit in the face of adversity, and rewarding it. These students really do perform better in university. One has only to look to those who go on to graduate study, and you realise it was not those who learned to ace tests in secondary school, but who learned to learn.

Posted by: j at March 12, 2003 09:28 PM