A question of academic and social elitism

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No doubt Professor Steven Schwartz's report on higher education will be interpreted in some quarters as evidence of the Government's desire to introduce "positive discrimination" into university admissions. Despite the professor's studious avoidance of that term, his proposal that universities should prefer students from ethnic minorities and disadvantaged backgrounds will heighten fears that fairness is being sacrificed for the sake of crude social engineering.

No doubt Professor Steven Schwartz's report on higher education will be interpreted in some quarters as evidence of the Government's desire to introduce "positive discrimination" into university admissions. Despite the professor's studious avoidance of that term, his proposal that universities should prefer students from ethnic minorities and disadvantaged backgrounds will heighten fears that fairness is being sacrificed for the sake of crude social engineering.

It is true that positive discrimination, in its purest form, has no place in higher education. Universities have to be academically élitist. Their role is to produce skilled graduates and carry out world-class research. They must discriminate between those applicants who can cope with the demands of a course, and those who cannot. The top universities must be even more rigorous. It is worth noting that some families would play a rigid positive discrimination system unfairly, moving children from independent schools into the local comprehensive before application time came round.

But Professor Schwartz is not advocating pure positive discrimination. If his suggestions were implemented, they would fall far short of a US-style affirmative action programme. He certainly does not advocate a quota system for ethnic minorities or the unprivileged. His proposals are essentially a plea for universities to make their admission policies more sophisticated, and recognise that many students from ethnic minorities, or poor backgrounds, are perfectly capable of thriving at university. Since subjective judgements are always, and inevitably, involved, this is a perfectly reasonable suggestion. And Professor Schwartz is careful to stress that admissions staff must make their primary assessment on the grounds of academic suitability.

The biggest flaw in university admission policies has been an entrenched social élitism where class counts for more than ability. This is particularly true in the most prestigious universities. The higher education sector is undergoing an unprecedented expansion, but universities, with some honourable exceptions, are failing to modify their admissions policies adequately. It is time to correct the balance.

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