It could be you, but getting an offer is merely a lottery

Universities should say merit plays no part in getting a place, professor argues. Melanie Newman reports

October 8, 2009

Rejection letters sent to university applicants should say they were simply unlucky, while acceptance letters should tell students they are to be congratulated "only in the sense that the winner of a lottery is to be congratulated", a Harvard University professor has said.

Michael Sandel, a professor of government who delivered this year's BBC Reith Lecture series, makes the argument in a new book, Justice - What's the Right Thing to Do?

Adopting the philosopher John Rawls' argument that a person does not merit success merely because he or she was lucky enough to be born with gifts that are in demand, Professor Sandel says a "philosophically frank" university should tell those it rejects that "we don't regard you as less deserving than those who were admitted" and that "it is not your fault that when you came along society happened not to need the qualities you had to offer".

In a similar vein, those accepted should be told: "You are to be congratulated, not in the sense that you deserve credit for having the qualities that led to your admission - you do not - but only in the sense that the winner of a lottery is to be congratulated. You are lucky to have come along with the right traits at the right moment."

The professor says such letters might "lessen the sting" for those rejected and "dampen the hubris" of those accepted. Musing on why universities still send - and why applicants expect - letters "replete with congratulatory, honorific rhetoric", he concludes that institutions "can't entirely dispense with the idea that their role is not only to advance certain ends but also to honour and reward certain virtues".

Universities demonstrate this by awarding honorary degrees to people who display the virtues they want to promote, he says.

Debates over affirmative action in the US and over admitting students from poor backgrounds with lower A-level grades in the UK reflect competing notions of what a university is for, he says. Key questions include the extent to which they should pursue scholarly excellence, and the extent to which they should strive to achieve a civic good, he adds.

The University of Bristol is one UK institution to have faced claims that it has admitted students from state schools with lower grades than their privately educated peers.

A spokesman for Bristol said Professor Sandel's views were "interesting and thought-provoking, but of questionable practical value". He said: "In a more abstruse realm he might be correct, but here on planet Earth there are relationships to be considered and courtesies to be maintained."


An analysis has found that private-school students with top GCSE results perform less well at degree level than their state school-educated peers.

The study's authors, Anna Zimdars, research fellow at the University of Manchester, and Anthony Heath, professor of sociology at the University of Oxford, say their findings justify lower admission requirements for state-school students.

Dr Zimdars and Professor Heath studied 476 students who applied to Oxford in 2002. They found that state-school pupils with an average GCSE result of A* had a 50 per cent chance of achieving a first-class degree, while private-school pupils had a less than 40 per cent chance of gaining a first.

The study justifies "slightly lower admission requirements" on the grounds that private-school students' grades are increased by short-term "teaching effects", the pair conclude.

The findings are published in the British Educational Research Journal this month.

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