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.

- 26 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

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  1. I strongly disagree with any form of discrimination, positive or otherwise. At the end of the day, it's still discrimination and someone is still the loser out of the situation, based entirely on gender, race, background etc etc. Candidates for university places should be selected entirely on their academic and intellectual merit, not on the basis of their race or skin colour or anything else. To choose candidates based on something other than intellectual ability would to me strike at the very heart of what universities are here for.

    07 May 2006, 16:32

  2. I read that article the other day and it infuriated me so much I couldn't find the words to blog about it properly. Regardless of the root causes of the issues being highlighted, the suggestion by Trevor Philips is ludicrous at best, and even racist at worst. Suggesting someone should have a greater entitlement to a university place on the basis of their race is, essentially, a form of racism. The guy's working for the wrong organisation – someone with that kind of opinion should be working for some kind of black peoples rights group, not the Commission for Racial Equality. What he's suggesting directly contradicts what the name of the group suggests it's about! What an absolute pillock.

    While I don't deny that the figures speak for themselves, and maybe more could be done to make the proportions of ethnic groups at Warwick a little closer than they are now, the way to deal with this is at a much earlier stage of education and life. Get into the schools and tackle the problem there. What Philips is suggesting is basically a "quick fix", which is flawed in too many ways.

    07 May 2006, 17:50

  3. I'm afraid I think that any process which selects candidates on the basis of anything other than academic merit IS positive discrimination.

    As a point of pedantry and attempted good humour, I feel inclined to point out that while such a system is certainly discriminatory, it isn't necessarily positive …

    On a more relevant note, I don't think the figures provided tell me anything at all. It would probably help if I know knew the population figures for minorities in the UK, which I don't; I guess we're just expected to know that sort of thing these days, aren't we? I would also suggest comparing them against the application rates because I suspect (quite without evidence) that similar proportions exist there. That is to say that I think ethnic minorities are under–represented because they do not, on the whole, apply.

    As for positive discrimination in general, my probably–unpopular opinion is that while I'm against it in principle I am for it in practise. This is because my ideal is not equality in treatment but equality in opportunity, and hence artificially increasing the opportunities of those naturally disadvantaged is a good thing. Naturally I do not endorse equality of opportunity regardless of merit, only regardless of gender, race, etc.

    07 May 2006, 20:02

  4. I completley agree with colin, in that though positive discrimination is in principle a terrible thing it may well be required to create equality.

    07 May 2006, 20:21

  5. Colin, thank you for your pedantry!

    I don't believe I suggested that giving equality of opportunity was a bad thing. I suggested that the selection processes should be more thorough to enable those who are more capable to succeed. Anything beyond that I'm afraid I can't agree with. Yes, promote equality by giving everyone equal access to a good education, encouraging them to apply to university and improving the admissions processes so that it is really the best who are selected. But to go as far as to select one candidate over another at the application stage when the one rejected may be more able is completely unfair, not to mention it being detrimental to the university.

    I was in the process of applying to Oxford whilst the debate was raging about whether Oxbridge were unfairly favouring state school pupils. Had I been offered a place I would have been furious if I found out that it was not because I was truly one of the most capable students but instead because they needed to fill some quota to save face. I want to be successful in life because of my intelligence and hard work, not because someone decided to take pity on my state school education.

    Sukhdeep, I'm afraid I think there's something fundamentally wrong about encouraging inequality to create equality.

    08 May 2006, 11:12

  6. James


    I wonder if the "debate" to which you refer was the kerfuffle stirred up by Gordon Brown about the girl Laura Spence, who was rejected by Oxford. This wasn't really a debate at all, it was a lie put out by Brown in an attempt to propitiate the unreconstructed 'old Labour' party members, who still like a bit of class warfare. There was not a trace of discrimination in the rejection of Spence; nearly every "fact" Brown dreamt up was false. In the House of Lords, he was torn to pieces even by his own side. Unfortunately, however, and much as Brown would have anticipated, the mud seems to have stuck, as one still comes across references to the 'Laura Spence affair' in the media from time to time. Anyway I'm not suggesting for a minute that you yourself was fooled then or now by Brown's little Maoist prank, but I thought I'd mention it in case anyone mentioend it. (Which they hadn't, admittedly, but I like countering Brown's propaganda wherever possible.)

    Moving to the topic, Phillips is fond of offering simplistic solutions that are ill–directed or unworkable. One thing he will almost never do is suggest that ethnic minorities themselves might have a hand in their own condition. Here are a couple of observations I would like to make:

    1. It is far too simplistic to lump all ethnic minorities in together. The experience of the East African Asians, who were expelled in the late 60s/early 70s and settled in places like Leicester, Ilford and Wembly, is far different from those who came from elsewhere in the developing world. The former were middle class who were used to living under the British system, and they've largely become middle class here too. They have a very strong emphasis culturally on education. The same cannot be said for many other groups including a lot of ethnic English. This suggests that what Phillips is really complaining about is economically or socially disadvantaged people, not ethnic minorities.

    2. Sarah is right that reform of the school system is a much better bet for improving the lot of everyone lower in the social scale, of whatever ethnicity. It's also much harder than just chucking in a quota system for universities, which is why Phillips didn't mention it.

    3. Hand in hand, though, is the emphasis on education placed by parents and peers. A programme on BBC 3 tonight argues (according to the Times) that the drunken disordely antics of British teenagers comes from a generation of lax parenting. Again this is not a culturally–centric phenomenon, though some cultures have much stronger emphasis on education than others.

    4. As well as parents, there are other influences on children which may damage their educational chances. These have long been around – the hippie culture of the 60s, punk of the 70s and now hip hop/rap etc. I personally haven't ever thought these are to blame over and above parenting and other social conditions. I have to admit to a 'metal' phase and it was riotously amusing to read of how it was supposed to be the decline of western civilization, and the cause of so many young people's suicide. I'm still alive, at least, even if not a paragon of civilization.

    5. Finally, however, positive discrimination might not be 'fundamentally wrong' as Sarah suggests; there might be circumstances in which it would be justified. Take Gerrymandering in the USA. It sounds bad of itself, but has to be seen against a background where lines were originally drawn to have the opposite effect – namely, to ensure that black areas never had a majority. Should the boundary commissioners (or whatever the US equivalent is) refuse to redraw boundaries on ethnic lines and hence leave the effect of past discrimination in place?

    08 May 2006, 12:22

  7. James, yes I know, I was merely using that as an example of how I would react if I were the 'victim' of positive discrimination, not suggesting that I thought the allegations against Oxbridge were actually true. I should have made this clear. It is a shame that due to all the 'kerfuffle' (good word!) surrounding this issue some state school pupils who were admitted during this period, and even now, may have their capabilities questioned because some think they did not deserve their success.

    2. I know it's difficult. This is another example of people (and particularly the current government) treating the symptoms rather than the cause. The problem will have to be addressed at some point, though so why not do it now?

    4. Yes, I had a 'metal' phase too, but I can't see that it did me any harm!

    5. Hmmm, difficult. I have to go to a rehearsal now, but I will think further later.

    08 May 2006, 12:45

  8. Ian Burnip

    as a disabled student (at aston) i think that positive discrimination is not the best way to do things, and i think it may infact create more problems with the majority feeling hard done by, this can increase the negative feelings towards the minority.

    I propose and idea, and it may not work, but what if universities didn't ask the race of a student? If they were being truly equal then it should not be a neccassery piece of information.

    08 May 2006, 13:34

  9. James


    Your point 3: Quite so, I'm not the one who needs convincing, Mr Phillips and whoever is the minister for education after the reshuffle do!

    Your points 4 & 5: Interesting, after a metal phase you are now a classical (I guess?) musician. Apparently classic heavy rock bands like Led Zep are taught at some schools nowadays, because they at least were trained musicians who could read music, cf things like gangster rap or plastic bands from the Spice Girls onwards. So, from being the destroyer of western civilization, Metal is becoming the saviour … Either that, or its former adherents are getting middle aged and becoming schooteachers …

    08 May 2006, 14:00

  10. Ian. I think we actually had something about this a while ago, and a spokesman for Durham or somewhere pointed out that the universities don't get told the race of the student, it's on the UCAS form solely for the government to provide statistics like this, and in reality, the only time where it might come up would be for courses/institutions where they have an interview.

    But hey, when did reality get in the way of political correctness!

    08 May 2006, 15:50

  11. Gosh, I don't usually get thanked for pedantry. I just do it for fun.

    In any case, universities do not, as has been pointed out, get these sorts of details from the UCAS forms, which as I recall was stated somewhere in all the literature that accompanies them, and in the Boar article linked to at the top of the page. As I said, I think the problem is not with the application process itself, but with how applicants perceive their choices.

    I still think positive discrimination is necessary, but it needs to be handled very carefully. Taking inadequate applicants doesn't do them or the institution any good in the long run, so it is clearly a bad idea. I think that, as suggested earlier, the problem needs to be addressed before students get to the stage of applying to university, although I couldn't say how.

    As for positive discrimination in general, what about wheelchair access? Surely paying for expensive ramps and lifts for a very small minority to help them deal with a problem which is not the fault of the institution concerned is rather unfair? Do you think this sort of behaviour is so insulting to the people that otherwise wouldn't have access to a building?

    I expect you don't. Now I'm not about to suggest that being black is directly comparable to being wheelchair–bound, but I expect there are difficulties associated with it, even in a nominally racially blind system line university applications.

    08 May 2006, 17:45

  12. Re 3,4 What is being proposed and what "Positive" discrimination is, is certainly not equality of opportunity. How can you opportunity to do some thing be equal if a part of or even the final choice is made solely on the basis of something you cannot change ie race. Real equality of opportunity is to treat every–one equally at the stage of choosing but before that if you think not enough people apply purely because of prejudice rather than ability, encourage more from a particular group to apply. Similarly if a group is underachieving give extra help but don't alter the end exam (for instance).

    Re 6 point 5 The boundary commissioners (or equivalent) should draw up the boundaries as they see fit and should not necessarily take into account race at all. If the candidate put up for the position is the best for the seat (?) then they will win or do we believe that the population is inherently racist?

    As far as university admissions go, since most universities don't interview anymore, we could just send them only the essential information such as results, personal statement etc. Number each candidate and don't send the universities the name, address, school, race (I know it isn't at the moment), gender…. This would ensure that the universities picked only on who was the best candidate regardless of race, religion, schooling etc. I know this system has problems ie who will check that the references are genuine etc. but in principle it would ensure that no university could select with a certain bias (unless they interview which a lot more should!!!)

    08 May 2006, 17:56

  13. About wheelchair access: I think that it depends on the building and the circumstances. I think public buildings ought to be wheelchair accessible in general. That does not mean if you have a grand entrance with columns and many steps that you have to build a huge ramp of to one side of this. I think a well marked side door would do the job adequately.

    For some small businesses the sheer cost of building a ramp, which would have to conform to regulations and match the building style, might be too expensive and force bankruptcy. Hence I don't think this should be required of private businesses.

    Wheelchair access can go too far: My home town is Worthing where we have a small Museum and Art Gallery which has a series of steps and a few columns as its entrance. There always used to be a wooden ramp which went over the stairs on one side to allow wheelchair access but a few years ago due to new regulations the council said this wasn't good enough. Instead they spent ~£250,000 of tax–payers money on a ramp built in sandstone to match the steps. Since the Museum isn't frequented that much, apart from the obligatory school trips (its not really that interesting!!), I don't think the council could justify spending that amount of money especially as the previous wooden ramp worked perfectly well and as far as I could see had lasted a good many years.

    08 May 2006, 18:17

  14. Bloody Equal Opps.
    Pile of bloody shite – let everyone get on with their lives and let's stop talking about the colour of peoples' skin shall we?


    Would have commented more, but everything I think has already been covered (by Justin and similar) and I have to go to work now…


    09 May 2006, 08:16

  15. James, I have always been a classical musician. It's just that my taste in 'popular' music has been, and still is, on the heavier side of 'normal'. I think metal is far closer to classical, in both the virtuosity of musicianship and the complexity of composition.

    Colin, I think you'll find that pedantry is appreciated, but solely by other pedants!

    09 May 2006, 10:23

  16. James

    Justin – the boundary commissioners should draw things up 'as they see fit'. Hmm, how should they see it then? The question of race wouldn't come into it if it were, say, council districts on the Isle of Mull. But the example I gave was from the southern USA – can we just ignore the history of racism there?

    On paper non–discrimination sounds unarguably correct. But what of South Africa? In a country in which the majority suffered half a century of formal discrimination, it would be a strange version of fairness simply to say, ok we're removing the formal discrimination, everyone's equal now, so away you go. Though generally opposed to state intervention in the market and elsewhere, I think there's a case for some form of redistribution to try and regenerate areas such as Sowetto. Of course, there is room for argument as to how to go about it – putting people in jobs they are unable to do, for example (a friend who does consultancy work out there gives legion examples), seems inadvisable.

    09 May 2006, 10:34

  17. James

    Sarah, your tastes seem to coincide with my sister, a classical pianist who is or certainly was a Led Zep fan. Mind you she also liked Pink Floyd, and for some reason several classical musicians I know despise Shine on You Crazy Diamond. When we were teenagers and fond of playing such things at earwax-removing volumes, my mother (another classical musician) used to point out things like keyboard solos in Deep Purple (specifically Burn from the Coverdale phase) were lifted straight from Bach. These days my better half bans all this sort of thing, so thank God for Ipods. The other day I flicked on MTV, and there was the Metallica video One. Genius. Who said the 80s were a bad decade for music.

    09 May 2006, 11:15

  18. Equal opportunities taken too far is of course a bad thing. But that's true of anything; that's why it's called 'too far'. Just because there's a limit on what can be done sensibly doesn't mean nothing should be done at all. Ideally the government would be able to tell where to stop, but I don't see that ever happening.

    Lorna: The problem with forgetting about equal opportunities and letting everyone get on with their lives is that without it a lot of people can't just get on with their lives. The person in a wheelchair is just the most obvious example.

    As for how much should be done, I think on the whole it's better to err on the side of doing too little than doing too much. Partly because doing to little is far cheaper, partly because people can resent special treatment even when they do need it, and partly because I think that things are generally improving anyway.

    09 May 2006, 12:48

  19. James

    Colin that all sounds sensible, but I'm afraid to say it is a little bit like telling people to do what is "fair". Everyone is in favour of fairness until we come to define it. I think you yourself agree by admitting "Ideally the government would be able to tell where to stop, but I don't see that ever happening". Do I have the answer? Err, still working on it.

    09 May 2006, 14:22

  20. Genius indeed, James, and even better live!

    I think there's a case for some form of redistribution to try and regenerate areas such as Sowetto.

    I can see where you are coming from with this point, but social change takes time. As you said, trying to change the status of people who have been oppressed in such a way can be difficult because of their lack of skill. On a smaller scale a new undergraduate student who has been educated in bad state schools may well find that he/she has knowledge gaps and find it far harder to catch up to the level expected at university. Granted, in this case the problem is not insurmountable, but it is far more difficult.

    In a country in which the majority suffered half a century of formal discrimination, it would be a strange version of fairness simply to say, ok we're removing the formal discrimination, everyone's equal now, so away you go.

    I don't think this is a strange version of fairness. Surely if we are forced to define 'fair' it would be something along the lines of giving everyone an equal opportunity. James, it seems that you are suggesting that two wrongs make a right: let's compensate for discrimination against one group by discriminating against everyone else for a while. The problem with all of this is where to draw the balance: how do you decide when the situation has reached equilibrium?

    09 May 2006, 22:42

  21. As far as I can tell, everyone is in favour of fairness as long as it gives them an advantage. Which is clearly very silly, but people are like that. I still think a limited amount of corrective discrimination – to reduce inequality rather than to correct injustice – would be a good thing in many cases. I admit I don't really know what form this ought to take, or who I would trust to carry it out.

    Sarah, I think the problem with just telling everyone to walk away because they're equal is that eliminating formal discrimination isn't the same as eliminating discrimination, and certainly isn't the same as creating equality. I don't think they should get compensation for the problems in the past, just enough help so those injustices don't continue to be a burden today.

    10 May 2006, 13:45

  22. James


    Colin has made pretty much the point I was going to – that while equality of opportunity is the desired situation, preferable to attempts at equality of outcome (communism, in a sense) it may be entirely illusory in a situation where there has been enforced inequality of outcome for generations, as is the case for South Africa. To bring about equality of opportunity may require some sort of social engineering. At the beginning of this thread, you might notice I agreed with Sarah that the answer to minorities in Universities in Britian is to do something about the quality of secondary and primary education, not to impose quotas on universities. Of course the difficult question is how best to go about doing that.

    I brought in the US Gerrymandering and the South African question to try and show (yet again trying to muddy Sarah's conceptual waters …) that there may be situations where something more than formal equality for all ethnic (or any other classification) groups would be appropriate.

    Sarah – I was about to say I've never heard Metallica live but that's not stricty true: I once lived about five km from a stadium where they were playing, and you could still hear them in the street. Awesome. Some philistines living closer apparently complained. I should get around to watching the film of them that came out a while back, it is supposed to be even better than Spinal Tap …

    10 May 2006, 14:24

  23. hero

    leave the economic equality to someone else. what we need is standards. i awm sick of having to go at the pace oif the thickies who need a special chance. IF The disadvanteged are intelligent enough to go to uni, instead of watering down standards they should do a high standard intensive one–two year course (like the french engineering schools) and then come and join a high–standard first year.

    Pandering to the thickies and the lazy is not what an elite establishment should be about. This is a priviledge, not something to be squandared

    12 May 2006, 15:31

  24. Hero

    and another poiunt.. why does the manifestly racist trevor whatnot run the CRE when he is unable to see race as anything but colour.

    12 May 2006, 15:33

  25. hairbear

    Well I don't think we should discriminate against people who can't work or understand things. IN fact I am getting a plumber to work on my house who can't plumb. It might wreck my propery, but I do so feel sorry for people who miss out on plumbing things just because they aren't plumbers.

    16 May 2006, 10:43

  26. Ian Burnip

    Justin McInroy,

    i have a large, power wheelchair, meaning wooden ramps are no good for me as they would break (did u know wheelchairs can weigh 126 kilos like mine!).

    As for steps, side doors and the like, i dont see ramps being unsightly if designed well. However i do agree on the degree allowed etc, i’d rather there was a steepish ramp, so long as there was a ramp!

    05 Dec 2006, 01:54

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