Equality strategy needed

Kevin Fong seeks a middle ground between affirmative action and passivity

November 27, 2008

Recent years have seen universities increasing their efforts to attract social and ethnic groups that have historically had little contact with the world of higher education. But while in the UK we rarely go so far as to link such activities with the American concept of "affirmative action", it seems unlikely that any significant broadening of the standard demographic can occur without institutions providing substantial assistance to prospective students from underrepresented groups.

This is a polarising issue with a whole arsenal of pros and cons on each side of the debate. Among these, the argument that those who stand to benefit will be tarred with the brush of positive discrimination is perhaps the most oft-cited objection.

But I would put it to you that for some, when faced with a choice between a miserable life spent knowing that you should have amounted to more or a better existence in which the principal penalty is very occasionally having to deal with sneering tossers, there's not much competition.

A much better debate could be had over whether the social injustices that programmes of positive discrimination might attempt to address are more important than the inevitable inequities that they create.

In the US, proponents justify affirmative action programmes, employed to preferentially admit female students and those from ethnic minority backgrounds, on the grounds that the sum of injustice so far suffered - and the prejudices likely to be encountered by these groups in the future - outweigh all other considerations. And even though this stance has at times been the subject of successful legal challenge, its supporters go undeterred.

In the UK we tread more gingerly around the issue. Most, if not all, British universities now have programmes that aim to expand the pool of undergraduates beyond the list of the usual suspects, but without resorting to affirmative action. For the most part, universities appear committed to encouraging applications from individuals from less conventional backgrounds, but stop short of explicitly assisting them or discriminating in their favour.

Unfortunately, there is no magic formula capable of telling admissions tutors whether three C-grade A levels from Bash Street Kids Comprehensive are equivalent to five As from Eton. As a result, current systems aimed at widening participation largely rely upon recognising the gestalt of students who have greater potential than their grades or grade predictions might immediately suggest. This is an inexact science entailing careful scrutiny of application materials, alongside gut feeling drawn from interviews. This fuzzy logic approach is probably as close as we can currently get to a workable system, but it remains far from perfect and does not lead to a significant broadening of the church.

There does seem to be an acknowledgement that there are schoolchildren, gifted enough to be successful undergraduates, who are thwarted in their pursuit of higher education by factors beyond their control. If true, this amounts to nothing short of a tragedy at both personal and societal level and one hopes that there might be something, in between the blunt-edged weapon of affirmative action and the relative passivity of current policies, to set against it.

The myriad efforts targeted at widening participation in higher education are a step in the right direction but are not sufficient in themselves. If we really want to move beyond the comfort boundaries of existing admissions policy and tap this unexploited human resource, then a bolder and more comprehensive strategy is necessary.

If one accepts that the school system leaves some individuals so poorly prepared and undergunned that they cannot achieve minimum requirements, then tweaking entry criteria to sneak them in via an alternative route will not work. Programmes that aim to widen participation in higher education need to do more than just get students through the front gate.

Active involvement by universities is required at every stage, from school through to graduation and beyond.

A better programme would reach beyond the geographical confines of the campus, out into the schools and communities themselves, with the academic equivalent of ambassadors and talent scouts.

It would actively identify and shepherd a few potentially promising students through by getting them up to speed using foundation programmes or mentoring schemes, providing support along the way if and when necessary. It would engage in longitudinal studies and track postgraduate progress; using these data to iterate and refine the product. It would be fairer and more sophisticated than affirmative action but far less passive than existing efforts.

The skill and courage required to navigate the moral maze, ethical minefield and legal quagmire associated with this would make Lord of the Rings look like a stroll through the woods for a picnic. But just because it's going to be difficult doesn't mean someone shouldn't try. And, yes, it would also need a tonne of financial resources, the likes of which we're unlikely to see this side of the next Ice Age if the newspapers are to be believed.

However, it is at least something worth keeping in mind for the future, when sufficient resources can again be brought to bear, for the better times that hopefully lie ahead.

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