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Making Universities (Even) More Unfair

Written by Neil Levy

Unsurprisingly, I’m a big believer in universities and higher education. I think research, of all kinds, is important for a whole range of reasons and that being educated is very often conducive to a good life. But we shouldn’t pretend that universities are institutions wholeheartedly devoted to genuine education and to research. They’re also businesses, and their business motivations often play a more important role in their decisions than any academic considerations. Beyond that, they play a role in society that’s independent of their role as educators, and that role explains some of their grubbier behavior.

The role I have in mind is a signalling function. A major role of universities is helping employers to make hiring decisions. Many of the positions that graduates go on to occupy don’t require the kind of skills that universities teach, so grades in specific disciplines don’t matter much to employers. Often, they’re more impressed by where a person got their degree than by their grades or the subjects they took. Famously, a 2:1 from Oxford or Cambridge is supposed to qualify someone for a job in the ‘city’ and someone with grades like that may well be preferred over someone with a first from a less prestigious university.

One reason is simple nepotism or prestige bias, but there’s a less cynical (though cynical enough) explanation. Employers effectively outsource much of their selection to the universities themselves. The universities decide who will get good jobs, in both the public and private sectors, not by assessing the work that students produce but by deciding whether to admit them. That makes admission decisions high stakes.

It’s in this light that reports like this one are so worrying. College admission in the US has long been dependent, in part, on the admission essay, also known as the personal statement (in the UK, such essays are also often called for, but the interview plays a more important role in Oxbridge). University entrance (and assessment within them) has never been fair, of course. People from certain backgrounds have always had a big advantage. In particular, people from the kinds of background that are more likely to make them confident and articulate under the pressure of an interview are much more likely to shine in that kind of context, while the ability to craft a personal statement depends on heavily on what Bourdieu called cultural capital, and in particular the ability to navigate the waters of self-presentation fluently (or, of course, on the ability to pay someone to write a personal statement for you). Whether by design or not, these requirements heavily favor the well-connected (I suspect it’s not quite by design, but if the system didn’t favor the well-connected it would come under heavy pressure from those most able to change it).

Bourdieu argues that the further a student progresses in education, the more they depend on cultural capital. What we’ve learned at school becomes less and less important, relative to our ability to show ourselves comfortable in certain contexts. By making the application process ever more demanding, and by making it demanding of skills of self-presentation, universities ensure that cultural capital is demanded right at the beginning. They remove the opportunity, small though it always was, to make up ground. It’s a disaster for social mobility. It also undermines the goal of genuine diversity and therefore may have costs when it comes to innovation.

A lottery, suggested by the author of the Chronicle article, would be much fairer. Luck determines outcomes to a huge extent already: the luck of having the ‘right’ parents. Let’s make the role of luck even clearer, and give more people a slightly greater chance.

Humanities depend more on cultural capital than the sciences: it’s hard to acquire the ability to write well if you don’t have a leg up as a young child, but mathematics and other formal systems are learned, and being from the right background matters – a little – less. Humanities academics should be especially strongly motivated to resist moves like this one. Sadly, there’s little sign of genuine opposition, from humanities academics or from anyone else.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. Alternatively, we could improve state/ public education at the school level so that everyone has access to training in writing well, and presenting confidently and articulately in person. They are useful skills in life as in university entrance.

  2. Constantin Klier

    A country like Germany gets along very well without any real top university. Instead, they have a large number of decent ones. Employers in Germany seem to have the unfortunate pain of really having to select applicants, I had always noted the difference to say France, US, Britain.

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