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Monday, March 19, 2007

Tickbox Thinking

‘There is controversy over moves to let university admissions tutors see the educational attainment and occupations of applicants' parents.
The admissions service, Ucas, also says its form for 2008 entry will ask applicants about their ethnicity and whether they have been in council care.
Vice-chancellors and ministers say the information helps widen participation.
Others say it can be used for "social engineering", discriminating against those with well-educated parents.’

So, the university business has come under criticism for its decision to request information on the educational background of an applicant’s parents. As well it should.

I’ve never been much of a fan of ‘equal opportunities’ forms. For one thing I’ve never really understood why it was that such forms ordinarily offer around 10 or more different options with which to describe non-white respondents (British Pakistani, or British West Indian, for example) but I only ever get the chance to tick one box – ‘white’. Always seemed a little peculiar to me to utilise two entirely separate categories (skin colour AND nationality) in one survey. If someone of Pakistani origin can be ethnically categorised according to their Pakistani sense of nationality rather than simply by their skin colour, why can’t I be Scottish-British? Or Pacific-British? Apart from being accurate, it’s long been an ambition of mine to sound more exciting than I actually am.

While these forms exist ostensibly to allow the authorities to monitor the intake from different sectors of our society, who do they actually benefit? Moreover, can we be sure that they are not used to discriminate against any particular group? Every time I apply for a job I’m asked to fill in a form telling any potential employer that I’m white: why shouldn’t my CV be allowed to speak for itself?

Many years ago, in a job interview, I was asked (by a particularly pompous magazine editor) what my father did for a living. Apparently the man in question was amazed that a London comprehensive-educated oik could be in any way academically capable, and he was trying to get his (small) mind around what my personal background might be – he needed to be able to place me in a specific ‘box’ in order to make his decision on what kind of a candidate he thought I was.
At the relatively tender age of 21 I remember thinking that this attitude was really rather pathetic (I walked out of the interview shortly afterwards), and yet Professor Drummond Bone (what a lovely name) seems to be employing much the same logic here:

‘The president of Universities UK, Drummond Bone, said its members placed a high priority on attracting students from families and communities with little or no previous experience of higher education.
"It is therefore useful for a university to have at its disposal a wide range of information to build up a full and rounded view of an applicant," Prof Bone said.
"It allows institutions to understand more about how the applicant got to where they are, and their potential."’

Forgive me if I’m wrong, but isn’t this a tacit admission that UK university admissions operate a system of ‘positive discrimination’? And if so, isn’t that completely unfair, utterly discriminatory, and potentially damaging both for the students they’re misguidedly attempting to help as much as to the middle-class and/or privately educated school children that they appear to regard as being less deserving?

When I was at school, in one of the early experiments dreamt up by enthusiasts of this offensive, do-gooder wooly thinking, I was sent on a trip to Oxford University. Unbeknown to us, myself and the other girls on the trip had been selected specifically because we were potential candidates for higher education despite our attending the school that we did; we were modern-day Eliza Doolittle characters who, through some sort of miracle, had survived a state school education with our intelligence intact. We were being asked to wipe the coal-dust from our inner-city eyes, and feel somehow inspired by the dreamy brilliance we saw around us in Oxford’s many colleges. We too could aspire to greatness, they told us. (One student did so quite literally: “You mustn’t think you’re not as good as us, you know”, screeched this particularly delightful specimen, into my increasingly-horrified 17 year old face).

You probably don’t need me to tell you that we didn’t feel inferior to these people at all. In fact, we knew we were a hell of a lot smarter than half of them, on the grounds that we had achieved strong academic results WITHOUT the benefit of an expensive private education. Back then, we wanted and expected to compete, in the higher education establishments of our choice, on a level playing field – as I imagine any “students from families and communities with little or no previous experience of higher education” would upon achieving strong exam results off the back of their own hard work.
Life isn’t fair, and society is far from kind to everyone, but if a kid is smart enough to do well at school, they will expect to be treated as being on the same level as their peers, regardless of their gender, their social background, or any other factors you care to think about. It’s what we call ‘equality’.

How pissed off do you suppose those same students would be if they realised they weren’t being admitted to university entirely upon their own academic merit, but because their dad happened to be a builder or their mother a cleaner, instead of the head of Goldman Sachs?

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