Saturday, April 12, 2014

University admission: time for affirmative action

The next Labour government may well take office at a time when social mobility in Britain has stalled, if not declined. For example for most of the past decade students who leave some of England’s highest-performing state comprehensive schools with the equivalent of at least three A grades at A level are a third less likely to go to one of the UK’s 30 most selective universities than their peers at independent schools. In fairness it is not unreasonable that any parent should want their child to do as well at school and in life as they have done themselves; often they want them to do better. In a free society if some parents choose to secure advantage and privilege by sending their children to elite schools there is little the state can do about it. However there are clear consequences for future social mobility that a future Labour Education Secretary would be wise not to ignore. British public schools have always been a production line for the class system. They employ some of the best-qualified teachers, with as many as two-thirds educated in the top 20 British universities. They can and do raise their fees steadily, they select their pupils; have a growing endowment income from their benefactors and some of the most impressive sporting and extra-curricular activities. What's more they have recruited from a middle-class obsessed by perceived educational and social advantage. One consequence is that state school children are still not reaching the highest levels in influential professions So what can be done? One answer might be to adopt the approach taken by the US state of Texas. Several years ago in one of the boldest-ever college admissions experiments, the Texas legislature passed HB 588, which guaranteed high school seniors who graduate in the top 10 per cent of their class admission to any Texas public college or university. HB 588, popularly known as the ‘top 10 per cent law’, sought not only to recover the drop in Black and Hispanic representation at its flagship institutions following the judicial ban on affirmative action, but also to increase the number of high schools that sent students to the four-year public universities. Has it worked? In 2008 a report carried out by researchers at Princeton University found that HB 588 ‘has triggered powerful mechanisms that, combined with the changing demography of the state and the automatic admission regime, have broadened access to the public flagships to high-achieving students from the entire state of Texas’. The report also found that by strengthening ties between the top universities and high schools with low college-going traditions the initiative had begun to improve high school climates and significantly raise the number of economically disadvantaged students attending university. Could this work here in the UK? The Texas model is ‘limited’ to a distinct geographical area, but for a similar scheme to work here in the UK a future Labour government could require each of our top universities to link to schools in a particular region or locality, schools that do not have a track record of sending their most able students to our premier institutions. If any student at one of these schools meets the entry requirements he or she would be guaranteed a place. Far from abandoning the very idea of social mobility, Labour should seek to legislate for measures that will reduce the very real barriers that prevent young people from certain social backgrounds achieving their full potential. This does not mean that personal progress should never be measured by the extent to which individuals escape their social background, but we must also accept that in order to overcome entrenched privilege and vested interests we must actively seek to open up society and end the present ‘closed shop’ that has, for too long, stifled meritocracy by supporting an aristocracy of the elite. If the conservative state of Texas can embrace affirmative action then surely a progressive Labour government of the future can as well.

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