Still room for merit alone?

Alan Ryan fears for the deserving if US-style admissions make it to the UK

January 26, 2012

One January task I’m glad to have shed in retirement is writing to teachers whose students didn’t get a place in the December admissions exercise. Nine times out of 10, the explanation was that applicants who were certainly good enough to do what they’d applied for were marginally less good than other applicants, and that when you’ve got room for only one in five of the “3As and better” students who apply, you’re going to disappoint four times more applicants than you’ll make happy.

Most teachers were phlegmatic about it, and accepted the arithmetic; but there were always a handful who insisted that without the deplorable Oxford prejudice against students from the state sector, we would certainly have admitted their students; and they were matched by the handful who insisted that without our kow-towing to government pressure, our deplorable political correctness, our systematic prejudice against the privately educated … and so on and so forth. I never succumbed to the temptation to send them each others’ letters, but the temptation was acute.

Viewed from the US, the effort that the most selective British universities make to admit undergraduates on academic merit and nothing else is astonishing. As Stefan Collini of the University of Cambridge once observed, a university place is one of the few things in modern Britain that isn’t for sale. Things that weight the odds in an applicant’s favour include better schooling, a richer cultural environment, and a home where a child can study in peace. But at the point where an applicant is face to face with an admissions tutor, academic merit is all that counts. I’m not sure such fastidiousness will survive.

The government’s love affair with US higher education has alarmed observers because of universities and science minister David Willetts’ apparent enthusiasm for importing discredited for-profit providers into the UK. I’m equally fearful of what its eagerness may mean for an academic merit-based admissions system. We take it for granted that when everyone says that Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Princeton and their peers are “the best universities in the world”, they really are the best. But the way they choose undergraduates might give us pause.

In the US, a handcrafted admissions process conducted by the faculty themselves operates in all research universities at the graduate level. There, but there only, students are accepted by faculty on the basis of their capacity for the programme they’ve applied to and nothing else. Short of proven criminality, psychological shortcomings are neither here nor there, and the “well-roundedness” so much in demand at the undergraduate level pales into insignificance compared with the ability to spend long hours in the lab, library or field without complaining.

But undergraduates are accepted by deans of admissions and their helpers; the faculty play no role. This is the system that educational philanthropist Sir Peter Lampl used to praise as vastly superior to what went on in Oxbridge, because it allows the university to engage in whatever form of affirmative action the university deems appropriate. The question is what forms of affirmative action do universities deem appropriate?

Readers of The Chosen (2005), Jerome Karabel’s deeply depressing 600-page history of admissions at Harvard, Yale and Princeton since the end of the 19th century, will know that things are a great deal better now than they used to be. Until the 1950s and beyond, there was systematic, self-conscious discrimination against Jewish applicants. Princeton also kept out those few black students with enough money and education to apply. Desirable young men - only men, of course - were “manly” men; they had the manners of the white, Protestant upper class; they were athletic, came from “good families” and from the handful of private schools whose headmasters were friends of the dean of admissions.

Has all this been swept away? Not entirely. Anti-Semitism is a thing of the thoroughly buried past; race-based affirmative action is a delicate matter - all but unlawful in publicly funded institutions, and everywhere subsumed under the quest for “diversity”. Three things remain: athletics, family ties and money. Surprisingly, athletics matters more at small, selective, elite private universities and colleges - the University of Chicago excepted - than at the athletic powerhouses. At the latter, a cohort of near-professional athletes hardly pretend to take academic life seriously, but they form a small percentage of vast student bodies. In the Ivy League and its peers, where the undergraduate population varies from 6,000 to little more than 1,500, 20 to 40 per cent of students are admitted with a leg-up from a coach. “Legacies” - the children of alumni - are three times more likely to be admitted than the unconnected, and the offspring of donors and prospective donors have the inside track one would expect.

What parts of all this might be coming to the UK? Not athletic preference; the Ivy League copied 19th-century Oxford, but I don’t see the reverse process taking place. The rest is another matter. Hard-pressed faculty may well be happy to give the job of admitting undergraduates to administrators; they in turn will be unlikely to resist “institutional objectives”, which in the world of commercialised education will mean making donors and alumni happy. This will happen side by side with the promotion of “access”, the desperate hunt for students who qualify on both academic and underprivileged scores. As to who will lose out, we know from the US: clever and well-educated first-generation applicants, not rich enough to attract the development office, but too white and not poor enough to catch the eye of the dean for diversity and equality.

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