Does Britain have class the way that America has race? If so, can positive discrimination do any good?
The item in Charles Clarke's white paper on the future of higher education that has attracted universal derision is his access regulator, or "Offtoff". One oddity of the proposal is that every university already has to persuade the Quality Assurance Agency that its procedures for admission are fair and transparent and that it has written criteria for selection. Unless Offtoff is to introduce murky injustice, it is not clear what it is for.
But it is clear what it could be for, and that is a push towards an affirmative-action programme in UK higher education. If that's what the Department for Education and Skills has in mind, it coincides neatly with an American push in the opposite direction. George W. Bush has just submitted a Justice Department brief to the Supreme Court asserting that the University of Michigan's affirmative action is unconstitutional - because it gets too close to being a quota system - to which other opponents add that it is anyway ineffective.
Which raises the old question: does Britain have class the way the States has race? If so, does affirmative action do any good. I think the answer is yes to both - with a lot of qualifications. Class barriers manifestly are not exactly like colour-based segregation; a well-off African-American doesn't change colour and doesn't often marry across the colour line, whereas a well-off working-class Brit who has learnt how to talk nicely is no longer working class. On the other hand, class barriers can be self-reinforcing as uneducated parents fail to see the point of education and produce uneducated children who reproduce the cycle of deprivation indefinitely.
In the States, most affirmative action helps the already advantaged - children of politicians and their friends, children of the rich, children of alumni, and athletes.
But what about what Offtoff may have in mind - a leg-up for those from backgrounds where education beyond the age of 16 is unheard of? The answer is that it works quite well - but not wonderfully. The research embedded in William G. Bowen and Derek Bok's book, The Shape of the River , ought to give critics and enthusiasts some pause. First, the one thing affirmative-action programmes don't do is improve the educational attainments of the beneficiaries relative to their peer group; if you arrive in the bottom third of your class, you tend to graduate in the bottom third of your class.
The English evidence on this is too patchy to be reliable. It used to be the case in Oxford that for a given set of A levels, state-school men did better than independent-school men, who did better than independent-school women, who did better than state-school women. And the Higher Education Funding Council for England has said that state-school students perform as well as independent-school students with A-level grades two points higher - but this sort of evidence is a reflection of the disciplined quality of independent schools (or the undisciplined quality of universities) and doesn't tell you much about the effects of social class. Nor does it tell you what would happen if all students worked equally hard.
However, the good news from The Shape of the River was that in terms of their subsequent careers, the beneficiaries of affirmative action were much more like their affluent, high-scoring peers at the colleges they attended than they were like the families and friends they had come from. They earned a bit less than their non-affirmative action classmates, but only a few thousand dollars; they were equally active in their communities and they did not suffer from low self-esteem because they had had a helping hand.
The important news is that this works much better if affirmative action puts its beneficiaries into high-quality environments. Affirmative-action students graduated slightly less well than their peers at places such as Harvard or Yale or Vassar. The worse the overall graduation rate, the less use affirmative action is and the bigger the gap between affirmative-action students and the rest.
My Oxford colleagues worry that taking in less well-trained students would make the students miserable as they struggled to keep up; I suspect it would vary enormously between subjects, and that the right sort of assistance would take care of most of the problem. But if I were Offtoff, it would be the Russell Group I would be looking to for assistance, not the London ex-polys. It would need to be done with the care shown by the Ivy League schools and their liberal arts college peers, and it would cost money. But it is certainly a discussible project, even if it is politically impossible and in the end too unfair to the well-qualified to be stomached by the squeamish.
Alan Ryan is a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioural Sciences, Stanford University.