A recent New York Times article, “Elite Institutions Are Tested on Diversity,” discusses a call for increased diversity in Great Britain’s universities — not just a call for racial diversity, but class diversity as well.
Extensive research shows that despite efforts to increase diversity in higher education in Britain, little progress has been made. Students have a greater chance of gaining acceptance to top schools like Cambridge or Oxford if they attended an elite, and expensive, private school, than if they come from a low-income family.
David Lammy, former British higher education minister, looks to the United States as a model. He points out that in the U.S. factors beyond test scores are taken into consideration during the admissions decision. Standardized test scores from students at inner-city public schools are generally lower than those of students from schools in wealthier suburbs, but because of the heavy premium placed on diversity, those inner-city students are still considered in admissions decisions to top schools. “If you graduate first in your class in Harlem, the Ivy League schools are going to want you,” Lammy says.
Other countries have also recently taken measures to increase the diversity ratings of their higher education institutions. Selective universities in France used to accept only about 13% of its students from low-income, scholarship-qualifying families; now they accept 20%.
University seats in schools in the Netherlands are either given to any and all high school graduates, or, for more selective courses of study, are given away based on a lottery system; plus there are no standardized entry exams. (This, the NYT article points out, would not work in a country like England where so much emphasis is placed on A-levels and where there are so many more applicants than there are seats at the elite institutions.)
According to a spokeswoman from Oxford, Oxford has made strides to increase diversity, for example by running summer schools for “students from under-represented groups.” 40% of participating students (all of whom had attended state schools) were offered admission at Oxford.
She also notes a cultural difference between Great Britain the U.S., specifically “[t]he exclusive focus in admissions on academic merit (rather than personal merit or the contribution you can make to the student body.” She continues, “We really are obsessed with finding the most academically able person.”
Some believe, however, that “by using A-level results as a filter, elite British universities may actually be missing able candidates.” “A poor child is more likely to be at a school that doesn’t push them to reach their full potential,” says Elliot Major, the Sutton Trust’s policy director. “But when they get to university they really fly.”
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