Affirmative action in education
Should universities use positive discrimination to increase diversity?
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Affirmative action is required for equality of opportunity. Under the status quo, it is easier for ...
Affirmative action is required for equality of opportunity. Under the status quo, it is easier for students who go to better schools to get into university. This is reflected in data from the UK - Oxford and Cambridge universities (the top academic institutions) take more than 50% of their students from private schools, despite private schools educating only around 7% of children. A similar story is evident with regards to ethnic minorities - white high school graduates are more than 10% likelier to go to college than black ones in the USA. This is because of the opportunities granted to wealthier children, whose superior education and less disruptive home lives give them a leg-up. It is unfair that such random aspects, which have nothing to do with talent or hard work, have such a determining influence on one’s life chances. Moreover, it undermines meritocracy – by allowing the rich to be advantaged, we create a society in which wealth, rather than ability, is rewarded.
Positive discrimination is unfair on talented students who lose their places, and on talented students from the disadvantaged group. The whole point of affirmative action is to promote a less able applicant ahead of a more able one, measured by their test scores. It undermines the fairness of the system if reasonable objective measures of a person’s ability, such as exam performance and aptitude testing, are overlooked. Under a system of positive discrimination, able students from the majority group or who went to private school are required to achieve more than others to get the same reward. Furthermore, positive discrimination is bad for the talented students from the target group who would get into university even without affirmative action: the policy will undermine their achievement, making their peers (and even them) believe that they only got to where they were because of different standards. It would create a two-tiered university system, in which the achievements of one group were elevated above the achievements of another.
Affirmative action is required to overcome existing prejudice in universities’ admissions procedures...
Affirmative action is required to overcome existing prejudice in universities’ admissions procedures. Admissions departments in top universities are likely to be discriminating against applicants from minority backgrounds, even if this process is not deliberate. A senior academic will look to see in applicants qualities they see in themselves, so, given the overwhelmingly white, affluent, male makeup of the academic community, minorities are at a disadvantage even if the admissions officer is not intending to discriminate against them. Prejudice towards certain types of applicants is blatantly unfair, and also undermines meritocracy (as explained above). Since we do not expect applicants from minority backgrounds to actually be worse applicants, it makes sense to require universities to take more of them, so as to protect the system from any bias that may exist.
There is little or no evidence of bias in universities admissions procedures. Universities admissions departments go to great lengths to ensure fairness, not least because it is in their own self-interest to take only the best applicants, to maintain the intellectual credibility of their institution. Any overt or explicit discrimination would be illegal, and should be guarded against by using a wide range of admissions procedures and interview (where applicable) by more than one academic. Any charge of prejudice would be an argument for ‘colour-blind’ (or school-blind) admissions, in which the background of the applicant is hidden from the admissions officer, so as to prevent any possibility of discrimination, subconscious or otherwise. The presence of positive discrimination would, if anything, raise the incidence of racism and prejudice on university campuses, with lecturers and fellow students resentful of members of the university perceived to have been given a helping hand.
Affirmative action is required to change negative perceptions of university life. In the status quo...
Affirmative action is required to change negative perceptions of university life. In the status quo, many talented potential students are put off applying for top universities (or university at all) because of their negative perceptions of elite institutions. This perception exists in part because of the makeup of the student population – black high school students may see a university filled overwhelmingly with white lecturers and students as not being a welcoming environment for them, and may even perceive it as racist. The only way to overcome this unfortunate stereotype of university is to change the student population, but this is impossible to do ‘organically’ while so few people from minority backgrounds apply. Therefore, it is necessary to use quotas and other forms of affirmative action, to change the student body in the short term, and encourage applications from more disadvantaged students in the long term.
Positive discrimination will increase negative perceptions of university. Far from changing attitudes about campus life among disadvantaged groups, positive discrimination is likely to be seen as patronising, and belittling of the achievements of ethnic minorities and the working class. By making the statement that disadvantaged groups are so far behind the rest that they need discrimination in their favour and quotas, universities will alienate themselves from the group they are seeking to help, and will come over as elitist. Survey evidence suggests that affirmative action is usually opposed by the target group, affirming the view that people wish to achieve things for themselves, without being given a ‘leg-up’ by the state. Moreover, positive discrimination devalues the achievements of those who would have been accepted into university even without the assistance, and these people are likely to be deterred from applying.
Affirmative action is required to redress social imbalance, by raising the aspirations of the disadv...
Affirmative action is required to redress social imbalance, by raising the aspirations of the disadvantaged. By having more students from disadvantaged backgrounds, affirmative action will generate more role models for the poor and ethnic minorities. This is because university graduates have more access to top professions, and are more likely to enter politics, law, or become the heads of major corporations. As a consequence, the aspirations of disadvantaged youths will change – it will become more realistic for them to see themselves in public life, and will thus have a better incentive to work hard at school. Not only is this good for their own development, but it will also help wider society by tackling social problems such as petty crime and truancy. Moreover, by having more politicians and businesspeople from humbler backgrounds, there is a chance that the political and economic structure of society will be changed to further assist the less well-off, for example by expanding welfare systems and ensuring greater equality of opportunities, or through different hiring practices.
Beneficiaries of positive discrimination won’t be good role models. A role model is someone others can look up to and admire for the things they achieved through hard work and talent – by parachuting people into university, their ability to act as a role model is undermined. It is also patronising to assume that young people from ethnic minorities can only look up to people who have the same colour skin, or went to the same type of school – in a society that admires diversity and cosmopolitanism, we should surely accept that anyone can act as a role model. Under this policy, however, there is a real danger that the government favours some minority groups over others, thereby inflaming social tensions. For example, positive discrimination in California has benefited one minority group, African-Americans, at the expense of another, Asian-Americans.
There is a benefit to students of all backgrounds from a policy of affirmative action in university ...
There is a benefit to students of all backgrounds from a policy of affirmative action in university admissions. College is not just about attending lectures and taking exams, it is also about the development of character and the broadening of the mind. If a university is overwhelmingly white and privileged, students are not exposed to different cultures, viewpoints and social experiences. By ensuring a diverse social mix on campus, universities strengthen the educational experience they provide.
It is wishful thinking to believe that this policy will overcome such embedded social problems as youth crime and truancy – this policy merely papers over the cracks by masking the fact that the failures of state-funded schooling and attempts at integration have led to a situation in which ethnic minorities and the poor are so vastly underrepresented in universities. The state should do more to address these underlying problems, rather than covering up its failures with a tokenistic policy. Better funding of state schools, real parental choice in education, and accountability through the publication of comparable examination data would all drive up standards and allow more underprivileged children to fulfil their potential.
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