What exactly are universities for? A slew of recent news stories has revealed no clear agreement on where exactly the likes of Oxford, Cambridge, the rest of the Russell Group, and the other higher education facilities fit into British life.
The ongoing squabbles over who should pay university tuition fees; trigger warnings on university courses; and the poshness of Oxbridge show that there are divided interests – including disagreements on what outcomes we are striving for.
On uni diversity, advocates seem to want absolute parity between the general British population and these institutions, albeit with some tolerance for minorities or the poor being overrepresented.
Nevermind that demographics are in constant flux, or that the lines between ethnic groups are blurring with more intermarriages. More difficult for this line of thinking is the dangerous idea that academic talent, and the cultivation thereof, may not be spread equally among all population groups.
There are two strands to this. ‘Talent’ in this context should be understood as the innate aptitude one has for things, before environmental factors come in to play.
As I pointed out in the podcast, intelligence is highly heritable. Combined with the fact people tend to have kids with those of similar smarts, and the importance of such heritable traits in our information-driven economy, this suggests some families could hog the best education and jobs over time.
The question of whether intelligence or academic talent more broadly is equally distributed over groups is naturally thornier, but a recent pile up between the thinker Sam Harris, the academic Charles Murray and other experts at least suggests the spread might be uneven.
It’s less controversial to say cultivation of talent, which would include access to education and removal of the stresses that impinge on that, is unevenly distributed. Access to the best education in Britain is based on wealth, the postcode lottery, the jostling of parents and, again, that highly heritable intelligence. Meanwhile, growing up in a supportive, functional household – to name another relevant set of environmental factors – is also matter of chance.
Few would contest that the environmental effects change someone’s chances of attending a great university. But is it possible that formative years can someone fundamentally make less suited to university, in much the same way malnutrition restricts your maximum height? Probably, I’d guess.
My point is people are kidding themselves that demographic diversity, social mobility and cultivating academic excellence are well-aligned goals. If you want to pursue pure excellence, the beneficiaries may not be as racially or economically diverse as the general population.
Even if the most talented slice of our population is as racially diverse as the country, and the effects of stable home lives and better schooling reduced, over time this would still lead the genetic lottery winners to take the best uni places and the plum jobs.
Such a problem was addressed years ago by Michael Young, the British sociologist who authored The Rise of the Meritocracy. A society where prizes are allocated to those who have already lucked into the best genes and the best childhood environment would be an unfair one indeed.
The answer is to either uncouple universities from the purest pursuit of excellence in favour of distributing places across ethnicities and classes – a troubling solution for many reasons – or to accept the unfairness of the life’s intellectual lottery and work harder to redress it through taxes and public services.
Image based on Crowd of People by Prawny