Excellence and equity

May 1, 1998

Amartya Sen, internationally renowned economist, says changes to higher education must address how to increase access for all while maintaining standards.

Mark Twain described cauliflower as "nothing but cabbage with a college education". This may well be an overestimate of the benefits of going to a college. Many of the finest cauliflowers - from Shakespeare to Charles Dickens - overcame cabbageness without the benefit of college. Yet there can be little doubt that a good college education can make a dramatic difference to human abilities and achievements. Not only can it transform individual lives, its role in social change can be crucial, including changes that have greatly contributed to movements for equity and social justice in the world.

Our primary image of Mahatma Gandhi may not be that of a student bent over books on jurisprudence, or of Karl Marx as a graduate student writing a PhD dissertation on Epicurus and Democritus, but the ideas generated by academic studies helped to make them what they were and also altered the nature of the practical world in which we live. The same can be said of the college education of Jawaharlal Nehru, or Aung San Suu Kyi, or Martin Luther King, or Nelson Mandela, or Mikhail Gorbachev (the first university-educated leader of the Communist Party since Lenin).

These general connections have some bearing on the debates going on at this time on the arrangements for higher education in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. If well-meaning but hasty rearrangements were to damage or deter excellence in the quality of education, it would not only harm the progress of science and culture, but would also be deeply counterproductive for the promotion of equity and justice in the long run. The reach of academic excellence includes social justice.

It is extremely important to pay attention to equity of access to higher education in general, and to the best academic establishments in particular. The fact that the fruits of good education include not merely the advancement of knowledge and understanding, but also social change, adds to the force of this concern. Indeed, even cultivation of knowledge is hurt by limited access, since no class has a monopoly on scientific or cultural potential. The connection of academic excellence with social justice works both ways.

Having spent many years on each side of the Atlantic (and having just come from Harvard University to Trinity College in Cambridge), I believe that each side has something to learn from the other.

The most accomplished universities in the US have been very keen for many years on expanding access. This applies to private universities such as Harvard, Princeton or MIT as well as to the distinguished state universities such as the University of California at Berkeley, which have all been running various programmes to increase enrolment of students from disadvantaged social backgrounds, particularly African Americans and Hispanics. The attempts include liberal financial support for students in tough circumstances. The policy of financial support has been helped particularly by the wealth of the American private universities.

The efforts have also included well-scrutinised programmes of going beyond formal grades and standardised test scores to take note of a variety of other evidence, including social and schooling disadvantage. Some universities have actually used formal criteria of affirmative action in going for a larger intake from disadvantaged backgrounds, particularly for African Americans. Recently, such programmes have come under severe attack, mostly from what are described as conservative political circles (though that description does not fit well the fact that these are radical reformists attempting to destroy - not conserve - a well-established practice in American academia). While the pressure in that direction is very strong on all universities, the legal requirements are stricter - and the purse-strings tighter - for state universities, such as the University of California at Berkeley, which has had to abandon its commitment to affirmative action.

Something more than affirmative action is involved in taking note of disadvantaged backgrounds in judging scores in standardised tests. As Neil Rudenstine, the president of Harvard, explained in his annual report last year, it is partly also an attempt to correct the imperfect signalling provided by marks and grades: "Students who have had less consistent access to good education (and who lack the money to pay for extra 'prepping') will frequently do less well on standardised tests. Opportunities, not just abilities, are a critical issue here."

A student who goes to a worse school, or has a disadvantaged home background, may achieve less in terms of grades and other standard criteria than another student with exactly the same potential who is more privileged in terms of schooling and background. Of course, good schooling does also improve the ability to make good use of higher education, but the admission process has a responsibility to take note of basic academic potential as well. This consideration, among others, has led Harvard and many of the best American universities to "an admissions approach", as Rudenstine explains, "which takes relevant 'objective' data into account, but is not driven primarily by them".

These issues are relevant to ongoing debates in this country. Of course, the need to improve the schools themselves remains a matter of great importance, but that is a much broader issue and harder to deal with in the short run, even though nothing perhaps is as important in the long run.

There is a further issue related to expanding access to Oxbridge that we can add to the two that emerge strongly from American discussions. There is a crucial need to remove the factors that discourage students from disadvantaged backgrounds from applying to Oxbridge. For example, whereas nearly two-thirds of those who get three As at A level are from maintained schools, the proportion of applications to Cambridge that come from these state schools is not very much above half. This may reflect some scepticism about Cambridge education, but it probably is more influenced by some pessimism about the chances of admission, or about the extent of welcome they can expect. This is, to some extent, a barrier of knowledge. There is an urgent need to break down that barrier, and to make Oxbridge more welcoming - and seen to be more welcoming - to students from varying economic, social and racial backgrounds.

The initiative of "Target Schools" at Cambridge is an attempt to do just that. (Oxford has a similar scheme.) This is a university-wide effort, run primarily by the students, with help from the university and the colleges. Students from similar backgrounds visit targeted schools and discuss the concerns and worries that potential applicants may have. This initiative is particularly vigorous at Trinity. It is supplemented here by a sixth form conference - also arranged by our students - held each year, just before Easter, where sixth-formers from the maintained sector (including further education colleges) are invited to spend two days and a night here, talking to Trinity students and having the opportunity of seeing for themselves what this college is like. Even though there is still a long way to go in expanding applications from maintained schools, particularly from disadvantaged schools, there are signs that these moves and related ones are beginning to make a difference. Student initiatives have been effective in broadening the interest in Oxbridge colleges, and have supplemented efforts by the university and the constituent colleges (for example through the Group to Encourage Ethnic Minority Applicants).

American universities may have something to learn from developments here, especially from student initiatives. But what about the converse? What can the British universities, Oxbridge in particular, learn from American experiences in trying to expand access? The possibility of departing from uniform criteria of grades and scores tends to arouse severe suspicion in most British discussions. And yet there is the need to address the fact that examination grades may not reflect well academic potential, because of disparate social backgrounds and differential schooling. The colleges cannot dilute their commitment to pursuing excellence in education. However, the standards sought are of ability and potential, and not that of a mechanical accounting of examination grades and presentational skill. This is difficult territory, and the fear of the "slippery slopes" in going beyond mechanical criteria of grades may well be very real, but the apparent security of mechanical criteria can also be deeply deceptive.

While it is very hard to take adequate account of the complex relation between potential and display, it is legitimate from the point of view of educational efficiency as well as social equity to do what can be sensibly done. The ultimate criterion has to be evidence of educational potential, not just a mechanical translation of examination grades or fostered skill. Since universities like Harvard have tried to deal with this issue for many years, there is clearly something to learn from their experience.

What about financial help, which many of the best American universities use to broaden their intake? Given the dependence on government finance in the UK, there is little opportunity for universities to take an independent initiative on this. The much-discussed cuts in financial support to Oxford and Cambridge would also reduce the ability of these universities to do much in helping needy students. Students can get means-tested loans, but the need to borrow can be very discouraging for those from an economically strained background, given the uncertainty regarding future earnings and the ability to repay them. Unlike the students aided by parents, those forced to take out a full loan will begin their working life with a very large debt, and this is daunting. Financial help from outside government sources remains relevant in the UK.

The point is often made that some Oxbridge colleges are wealthy establishments, and can use their money for these purposes if they choose. Many of these colleges are not, in fact, wealthy at all, and even those which are relatively better off are not at all in the same league as the better-off American universities. My own college is well-endowed in comparative terms here, and yet any comparison with Harvard or Princeton will show that richness is a relative matter. Nevertheless, Trinity does give away a significant proportion of its net income for academic causes (a higher proportion than any other academic institution in the world, of which I am aware). These transfers are made to provide bursaries for students in need from all colleges in Cambridge (through Trinity's grants to specific trusts, such as the Newton Trust) and also to help other colleges and research work in Cambridge. In 1996 and 1997 Trinity gave away more money than it spent on running the college.

It would greatly help the cause of access if the colleges were able to spend more to reduce hardship and attract disadvantaged students. But this will not be easy, given the financial strains, and the situation may get much worse if government funding to Oxbridge is severely cut. Even the relatively better endowed colleges will then have to spend more helping other colleges survive and the axe may inevitably fall on the support given to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The cynical view may well be that access to Oxbridge would cease to be an important issue if the proposed rearrangements reduced the quality of these universities sufficiently. But if they do manage to retain their excellence in international terms, then the generated difficulties in expanding access (as an unintended but very real consequence of funding changes) will be most unfortunate.

Demands of equity and justice in - and through - education strongly suggest the need to rethink a number of policy issues concerning Oxford and Cambridge. I have tried to identify a few central issues which have to be simultaneously addressed involving admissions criteria, welcoming policies and financial support - all of which have a direct bearing on access.

Above all, it is important to understand the complex connection between academic excellence and social equity. Rather than seeing the two as being in deep tension, we have to appreciate more fully how academic excellence promotes social equity, and how the advancement of social equity in turn may help the cause of academic excellence.

Amartya Sen is master of Trinity College, Cambridge.

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