The low proportion of working-class students at elite universities is the "natural outcome" of IQ differences between the classes, an academic claimed this week.
Bruce Charlton, reader in evolutionary psychiatry at Newcastle University, provoked a furious response with his claims that the greater proportion of students from higher social classes at highly selective universities is not a sign of admissions prejudice but rather the result of simple meritocracy.
Dr Charlton says in a paper shown to Times Higher Education: "The UK Government has spent a great deal of time and effort in asserting that universities, especially Oxford and Cambridge, are unfairly excluding people from low social-class backgrounds and privileging those from higher social classes.
"Evidence to support the allegation of systematic unfairness has never been presented. Nevertheless, the accusation has been used to fuel a populist 'class war' agenda.
"Yet in all this debate a simple and vital fact has been missed: higher social classes have a significantly higher average IQ than lower social classes."
He argues that simple mathematics lies behind the fact that the proportion of students from lower socioeconomic groups becomes smaller the more selective the university.
"The highly unequal class distributions seen in elite universities compared with the general population are unlikely to be due to prejudice or corruption in the admissions process. On the contrary, the observed pattern is a natural outcome of meritocracy. Indeed, anything other than very unequal outcomes would need to be a consequence of non-merit-based selection methods," he writes.
The National Union of Students branded Dr Charlton's arguments "wrong-headed, irresponsible and insulting".
Gemma Tumelty, president of the NUS, said: "Of course, social inequality shapes people's lives long before they leave school, but the higher education sector cannot be absolved of its responsibility to ensure that students from all social backgrounds are given the opportunity to fulfil their potential.
"The simple fact is that many talented individuals from poor backgrounds are currently not given the same opportunities as those from more privileged backgrounds. This problem will not be addressed as long as academics such as Bruce Charlton are content to accept the status quo and do nothing to challenge the inherent class bias in education."
Robert Sternberg, dean of arts and sciences at Tufts University in the US and an expert on human intelligence, said Dr Charlton was guilty of "narrow, in-the-box, elitist thinking".
He told Times Higher Education: "Of course there is a correlation between IQ and social class. People of higher social class have much greater educational, economic and socialisation advantages, which they pass on to their children. By adopting the system Dr Charlton recommends, we ensure that the higher classes will continue to pass on these advantages, and we will ice out those of lower social classes. We thereby create self-fulfilling prophecies."
Alan Ryan, warden of New College, Oxford, said the relationship of IQ to academic success was "very much looser than Dr Charlton imagines".
He said: "All the evidence suggests that measured IQ is a function of innate endowment and nurture; high-IQ children in the lowest income quintile do less well in IQ tests over time, while low-IQ children in the highest income quintile do better. The most obvious explanation of the class differential in Oxbridge intake has nothing to do with IQ and everything to do with the ability of private schools to get their students three As at A level."
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said research had shown that students from state schools outperformed their independent school contemporaries when they reached university.
"It is up to all of us to ensure that not having access to the social and educational benefits that money provides is not a barrier to achieving one's full potential," she said.
Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, said Dr Charlton's arguments had a definite tone of "people should know their place".
He added: "Although many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds gain the qualifications to go on to higher education, they are still less likely to do so than their more privileged peers so it is vital that we continue to properly prepare and support students to aspire to higher education."
But Richard Lynn, professor emeritus at the University of Ulster and author of Dysgenics, said: "Bruce Charlton is correct. This has been shown in numerous studies over the course of the past 80 years."
IQ AND UNIVERSITY ENTRANCE
According to Bruce Charlton:
- In the UK, the average IQ is 100;
- Typically, the average IQ of the highest occupational social class (mainly professional and senior managerial workers such as doctors and bank managers) is 115 or more;
- By comparison, the average IQ of the lowest social class of unskilled workers is about 90;
- In round numbers, there are differences of 30 IQ points between the highest and lowest occupational social classes;
- It can be predicted that about half of a random selection of children whose parents are among the cognitive elite (IQs of 130 or higher) would probably be eligible for admission to the most selective universities, but only about one in 200 of kids from the lowest social stratum.