All entries for Sunday 07 May 2006

May 07, 2006

Equality in higher education

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Rather surprisingly there is a contentious issue that raises its head frequently in the media about which I feel quite strongly, but which I actually haven't mentioned on this blog. This is not something that happens frequently, do to address this inconsistency:

I am talking of the call from pressure groups for universities to change their admissions policies to actively increase the proportion of students from ethnic minorities. To quite from the above article:

The University is unlikely to take action to increase the number of non–white students, despite a damning report by the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE). Trevor Philips, Chairman of the CRE, said in a recent speech that he wanted Universities to take “positive action” to admit more students from underprivileged and ethnic minority backgrounds. One CRE official told the Times, “If you have a black student and a white student at the front of the admissions queue, we would want the University to take positive action to take the black student first.” A spokesperson for the CRE told the Boar that the number of students from ethnic minority backgrounds at Russell Group Universities was “concerning”.

Now, I'm all for increasing the level of education of gifted students from ethnic minorities. I agree that efforts should be made to redress the balance. However, I do think that the approach the CRE is recommending is wrong.

What do you do when you have two candidates at the front of the admissions queue? You interview both and pick the strongest candidate. The CRE claims that their recommendations do not equate to positive discrimination. I'm afraid I think that any process which selects candidates on the basis of anything other than academic merit IS positive discrimination.

I feel that this situation should be approached in a different manner. Universities should not be required to choose, positively or negatively, on the basis of race, just as they should not bias themselves towards state school pupils or any other group that is viewed to be underrepresented. If anything, the interview process should be developed so that it is increasingly possible for tutors to select on the basis of someone's intellectual capacity for their chosen subject rather than on the extent to which their school has taught them.

Targeting universities at all is, I believe, misguided. The levels of pupils from ethnic minorities in universities, and particularly those higher up the rankings, is merely a reflection of a general trend throughout the entire education system. On average these pupils live in poorer areas, go to less successful schools, and thus achieve lower grades. Lowering grade requirements could be an option, allowing more candidates to come to interview and thus giving more the chance of proving their worth outside the constraints of the National Curriculum and the negative influences of their schools, but it may well be unworkable.

Instead, why not attempt (and I know this is highly idealistic of me, but hey!) to redress the balance from its point of origin? It is not the job of universities to give unfair advantage to certain candidates, but rather the responsibility of the Government to improve primary and secondary education and to give gifted children, no matter what background they come from, the opportunity to achieve from the youngest age possible.

Something should be done to allow the brightest students to get the places they deserve at university, but I think asking universities to discriminate in the grounds of race is the wrong way to go about it.

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