Admissions lotteries could help bring the elite down to earth

Hyper-selective universities help create the outrageous arrogance of some politicians. A bit of randomness in the process could lead to more humble leaders, argues David Matthews

January 17, 2019
Emmanuel Macron
Source: Getty

Would you feel differently about yourself if you’d got in to your university – assuming you’re a graduate – not through selection, but luck of the draw?

I ask the question because university admissions lotteries have been discussed on both sides of the Atlantic.

In France, Emmanuel Macron’s government has phased them out, arguing that they allowed ill-prepared students on to courses that they go on to fail. Having listened to the horror stories of first-year failure and demoralisation, it’s hard to argue that change wasn’t needed.

But in the UK and US, some academics have advocated another, much more limited form of lottery to decide between the already highly qualified applicants to very selective universities such as Oxford or Harvard.

A lottery would help to stop the highly informed children of the middle classes from prepping for and gaming the complexities of the admissions process, they argue. Drawing lots also arguably avoids the opaqueness of interview-based judgements about applicants’ characters, a method used by Harvard.

There is another good argument for admissions lotteries among qualified candidates, I would argue. They might just deflate the towering arrogance and entitlement of some of our contemporary political and business leaders.

When I mention “leaders” and “entitlement” I'm sure a swarm of familiar faces float in to view. To take just one example, anger at the arrogance of Macron – who famously wanted to govern like the god Jupiter and has a history of making offhand comments that drip with dismissiveness – came up time and time again when reporters spoke to the yellow-vested protesters who rocked France last month.

Macron attended two grandes écoles, the ultra-selective French institutions so elitist, some argue, that they make Oxbridge and the Ivy League seem like a widening access initiative.

It’s almost hard to blame someone who beats hundreds of other applicants for believing that they are born to rule. But it just doesn't seem healthy to tell youngsters at an impressionable age that they have been hand-picked for membership of an academic elite, when in fact the difference between acceptance and rejection can come down to a cold on interview day, or a bad night's sleep before an exam.

I'm sure that “elite” universities would protest against any randomising of admissions, arguing that their courses are so demanding that they need to scoop off only the crème de la crème. But if these universities are as good as they say that they are, surely they could cope with teaching merely, say, the top 2 per cent, rather than the top 1 per cent, of high school leavers.

If you have watched the horror show that has been the past three years of British politics, you’ll hopefully agree that we need fewer leaders who believe that they are clever enough to bluff, charm and orate their way through one of the most complex problems ever to face the country.

Allocating university places by lottery – even if students required certain grades in the right subjects to enter the draw for a particular course, so as to prevent French-style mass dropouts in the first year – would clip their wings of over-confidence, like the slaves who supposedly whispered “remember you are mortal” to Roman generals during their triumphal processions.

If you’re still not convinced, think of the time and tedium saved at dinner parties. What would be the point of slipping an illustrious alma mater into the conversation if you got there through a roll of the dice?

David Matthews is a Berlin-based reporter for Times Higher Education.

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