A lottery in which we would all win

May 11, 2007

Social engineering has always gone on in universities. Bob Brecher claims a fairer system would not allocate places based on 'talent'

The recent spat about the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service asking applicants to say whether their parents had been to university was depressingly instructive about the intellectual state of our universities. It's not that people are going to lie. Rather, it's the ready acceptance of the arguments made against an admittedly impractical and half-baked idea: first, that able applicants would be denied a university place; and second, that the proposal constituted unacceptable social engineering. Both these objections are ludicrous.

Even if the proposal were to work, no one would be denied a university place. Given widening participation, there is no shortage of places.

Everyone who wants to go to university - and isn't put off - can get a place somewhere. What would change is that the most academically able people - assuming, quite unreasonably, that A levels are any indication of ability - wouldn't necessarily get the university place of their choice.

And that's entirely different. Some people, then as now, would be denied the university place of their choice. All that would change is who those people were: places in "good" universities would become less unfairly distributed.

Now, you might of course think that "the cleverest" people should go to "the best" universities. But why shouldn't every lecturer teach students across the range of ability? If there is a good case against that, it would have to outweigh another powerful argument: namely that it would do the whole sector a great deal of good were "talent" to be more evenly spread.

Why? Because of the close correlation between "talent" and social class, and because changing the social composition of our universities along less class-ridden lines is long overdue. Who knows? A more even spread might even raise standards across the board.

It's interesting to observe how merely pointing out that the proposal constitutes social engineering (or would do in a more realistic and robust form) has been enough to damn it. But what's wrong with social engineering? After all, entry to universities always has been socially engineered, and pretty carefully at that. It's no different now than it was in 1868, 1930 or 1992. Can anyone seriously suppose that the kudos, to say nothing of the power and the wealth, accruing to people from having attended one of the "best" universities isn't a matter of social engineering? Or that old boys'

clubs, even when extended to old boys' and girls' clubs, are simply intellectual talent made manifest? The real, albeit unspoken, objection is not to social engineering but to social engineering in the direction of greater equality.

So what's wrong with the proposal is not that it's social engineering, but that it's ineffectual. The status quo does need to change, and not just because our universities will continue to degenerate into second-rate "training providers" if it doesn't. A few weeks ago, Alan Ryan wrote that Oxford University should admit 20 per cent of its students by lottery. But why stick at 20 per cent? And why only Oxford? Why not go all the way and do the job properly? Instead of giving some universities choice about the undergraduates they teach, and those candidates who can play the game a choice about where they go, we should simply have a lottery open to everyone qualified for university - unless of course you really don't think that a decent university education should be offered to everyone who can benefit from it.

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy at Brighton University.

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