‘Oxford is committed to recruiting the best candidates from all backgrounds and all identities. The University is committed to fostering an inclusive culture which promotes equality and values diversity’ – University of Oxford, Admissions Statistics.
This statement, presented without even a hint of irony, shows most clearly what is wrong with higher education today. It is by no means exclusive to Oxford or Cambridge. The Russell Group, representing 24 of the United Kingdom’s top universities, recently presented a response to the Office of Students’ consultation on access and participation, saying: ‘Russell Group universities are engaging in a wide range of activities to widen access and support participation’.
It is a great irony of our times that at the same time as our top universities attract talented students from all over the world, they insist that their role is to ‘widen access’ to disadvantaged students. Most universities now have an ‘equality and diversity officer’ whose role it is to make ‘disadvantaged students’ feel more at home and encourage more ‘marginalised’ students to apply. Ironically, this push towards equality and diversity comes as universities become more elitist than ever before.
Consider for a moment what elitist actually means. It comes from the Greek word ‘to choose’. This should make it easier to understand what is going on. Universities have become open, not just to the general population of the UK, but to anyone in the world who has the means and the intelligence to apply. And as of 2018, more than half the world’s population now have the means. This spur of international competition has been transformative in higher education. How could it be otherwise? Oxford had 19,000 applicants for 3,200 places in 2017, an average of 6 applicants per place. Other universities may not be as high, but even if there are 2 or 3 applicants per place at Russell Group universities, the point still stands. Competition will only become fiercer, and the tensions between recruiting the best candidates and promoting equality will become more obvious.
The rhetoric of widening access has become so convincing that people see no irony in an elite institution promoting equality of access. No doubt there are many at these top universities who believe what they say. But what they say of muddled and confused. What counts as ‘disadvantaged’ is usually framed in terms of environmental factors: a paper published by the Scottish Government in 2010 mentions geography and family commitments as two factors holding people back. But if all of those factors were met, would much change? That cannot be said for certain. But there have already been significant changes: real terms spending per pupil has doubled since 1997, but so has GDP. In fact since 2010, education spending as a percentage of GDP decreased, from around 6% to almost 4%. As a result, all those ‘barriers’ to achievement have only deepened as other priorities take precedence in public spending.
But all is not lost. In 2017, for the first time in history, MPs who had been educated in comprehensive schools outnumbered those who had gone to private or grammar school. However, it is worth noting that the balance was only 51%; an achievement nonetheless. Why did it take so long, despite the fact that comprehensive students are in a clear majority across all levels of society? Perhaps it is obvious, but there is something to be said for selective education. There are arguments for and against it, but unless we can have a healthy debate, we will get nowhere.
In 1958, Lord Young, who had helped draft Labour’s 1945 manifesto, wrote a tongue in cheek account of an ‘Populist’ uprising against a future elite called the meritocracy. In The Rise of the Meritocracy, Young writes from the point of view of a sociologist who approvingly charts the development of a meritocratic society where, at every step in a human’s development, he or she is sorted and tiered by their IQ and ability. Carefully compiled charts show how children are taught in classes where all share a similar IQ, with their teachers in the bracket above. Incentives are introduced to keep children in school, from free school meals to outright bribery. As a result, writes the author approvingly, ‘[t]heir homes have become simply hotels, to the great benefit of the children’. A society is devised where scientists, civil servants, engineers and teachers are paid equally, and paid well. So effective is this system that traditional nepotism is swept away. The report’s author gloats over its ‘triumph’ when bastions of privilege, namely and private and public schools, close under the strain of competition and an effective tax on inherited wealth.
Some of the proposals in The Rise of the Meritocracy would garner much approval. Pay scientists and teachers equally? Absolutely! Find ways to keep children in school? What a good idea! But much of the book would leave readers cold. What happens to the ones who don’t make it? This remains left out, until the disenfranchised revolt, unhappy at their lower status. Despite every measure to recruit the best, including tests all the way through adulthood, this meritocracy failed to produce an equal society. Indeed it never aimed to, and for this honesty we should at least be grateful. The same cannot be said for our own system, which claims to desire both. Our universities say that they want ‘the best’ and also want to ‘promote equality’. In truth their aim has always been the former: equality and diversity will never take precedence over the need to educate the best students.
When we look globally, at the ever more vertical hierarchies we find ourselves in, we realise that this is the world we live in: one of unequal outcomes. No one should be happy with this, or just accept it, or give up hope. So much needs to be done to promote equality of outcome, but only if it is through equality of opportunity. At the same time, we need to develop the ability to talk about these issues – to talk about how to measure ability and inequality, and how to treat those who do not make it to the top. If we fail to have a healthy conversation, then Young’s prophecy may come true. But instead of a society led by visionaries, believers in the greatness of meritocracy, we will be led by liars who hide their intentions through a denial of their privilege and their advantages.