Education and Inequality

Inequality is an old and vexed issue. Isaiah rebuked Israel for grinding the faces of the poor, Thersites got himself beaten up for complaining about Agamemnon, and so it has gone ever since. From Marx to Rawls to Michael Young, equality and meritocracy, justice and opportunity, class and race, money and taxes, jobs and immigration, education and tuition and top-up fees, have been debated and re-debated.

Education, especially higher education, is one area where tensions and disagreements about inequality play themselves out with extra passion. Many citizens, parents, students, employers, thinkers would like to see higher education available to more people and especially to a wider range of people: more women, more non-white people, more poor people. The difficulty is in the question of how this is to be accomplished. Is it enough for universities to recruit students energetically? Or should universities lower some barriers to admission? Should they take into account the better education middle class and upper class children get, and thus accept lower test scores and marks from applicants without such useful backgrounds? Or should they be strictly impartial when allocating points and grade all comers in exactly the same way?

It’s a complicated issue, and there are drawbacks and advantages to either policy. It’s an exasperating aspect of the debate that neither side is generally very good at noticing or facing up to the drawbacks of the policy it favours. But it is true that a decision to give applicants extra points for coming from a bad school or being a racial minority or growing up in poverty, will mean rejecting applicants with higher marks. This not only seems unfair on the face of it, it also subtly denigrates the academic learning and hard work that education is meant to be about. And on the other hand it also is true that students who have grown up with books in the house and a quiet place to do lessons and small classes in safe schools have had fewer obstacles than students who haven’t grown up that way. But then are those advantages themselves unfair, or the result of parental choices and sacrifices that shouldn’t be punished? But should poor parents be punished for not having the chance even to make such choices? And so on. Naturally, the sides do have to choose one position or the other in order to act, but the debate might be less acrimonious if both admitted the complexity of the issue.

The policy of helping disadvantaged students to get into universities is called Affirmative Action in the US, positive discrimination in the UK, and in both places it can kick off firestorms of recrimination and anger. There is a case from the University of Michigan before the US Supreme Court now, and there was another in 1978. Individual states have passed ballot measures outlawing Affirmative Action. The issue does not go away. In the UK it flared up in the first week of March 2003 when the University of Bristol acknowledged that it admits some state school students ahead of better qualified private school ones. The main public schools associations, The Headmasters Conference and Girls Schools Association, declared a boycott of Bristol, claiming that their pupils were being treated unfairly, and the newspapers had a field day.

So we thought it would be useful to pull together some links on the subject. And add some definitions. In the US, public schools are free and open to all, private schools charge fees and often have selective admissions. In the UK, public schools charge fees and often have selective admissions, state schools are free and open to all, and independent or private schools charge fees and often have selective admissions but are generally less expensive and less selective than public schools.

External Resources

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