The predictable problems of university Affirmative Action policies

Last year, upon reading a university Principal’s boasts about lowering access grades for ‘disadvantaged pupils’, I wrote a response highlighting the dangers of such an approach. I listed a number of concerns including:

  • It assumes that people from disadvantaged backgrounds are not academically able

Such approaches assume that a ‘disadvantaged’ student is less able to achieve than their ‘advantaged’ counterpart: a rather insulting assumption. For example, the Principal states that ‘we think it is as tough, and demonstrates as much potential, for a disadvantaged student to get three Bs at Higher as it is for another student to get two As and two Bs’. No evidence or justification is given to support this assertion. Indeed, even if we accept that disadvantaged students are less able to achieve, one still has to wonder how much we are helping them by giving them the message that they can only achieve if grades are lowered for them.

  • Even if disadvantaged students were not as academically able, lowering grades does not help to address any of the causes of any academic problems

Students (‘advantaged’ or ‘disadvantaged’) may not achieve the necessary grades to gain access to university for a number of personal reasons, including lack of motivation, lack of interest, and unfashionable though it may be to mention it, lack of ability. Lowering grades to allow them into university does not address any of these problems. Even if none of these personal circumstances apply, and students are failing to attain entrance grades due to situational factors (a belief that Affirmative Action policies seem to favour), it is difficult to see how accepting them into an institution of higher learning without changing their circumstances will help them. It seems much more likely that this will put more strain on the student, potentially damaging their wellbeing, and increasing the likelihood of drop-out.

  • It assumes that going to university is what is best for these students

These policies are based on an assumption that everyone ‘should’ go to university. However I’m not aware of any discussion regarding whether it is actually best for all to go to university. Gaining a generic undergraduate degree, which brings a 4-year commitment (plus the associated student debt), and no guarantee of a job at the end of it, is not necessarily in everyone’s best interests.

To be clear, lowering entrance grades for certain students is not a policy that is unique to this university: the Principal’s boast was that they were ‘leading the way’. Other universities have followed suit – with what appears to be little justification, other than pressure to be seen to be accepting more disadvantaged students on to courses. As I noted previously, a cynic might suggest that the fate of the students may not be of great interest to the universities once they are through the doors and the quotas met. Indeed, we could argue that this must surely be the case since pushing unqualified students into a situation that they are, by definition, unqualified for, is fairly likely to lead to failure.

Imagine my lack of surprise then when I saw the results of a report by the Higher Education Statistics Agency showing that university dropout rates have risen by two thirds over the past 5 years, with the largest increase in the UK (not just Scotland) being shown at the aforementioned Principal’s university. Here, the dropout rate rose by 8.6 percentage points from 3.5% in 2011-2012 to 12.1% in 2016-17. Of course, this rise could be associated with any number of factors, but it may be more than a coincidence that the universities with the highest drop-out rates are the ‘less selective institutions that generally do the heavy lifting on social mobility’. Indeed, 1 in 10 ‘disadvantaged’ students drop out of university after the first year compared with 1 in 20 who do not come into that category.

At this stage, one might expect questions to be asked regarding the wisdom of dropping grades to bring students in to the university. However, such questions would not be well-received, so instead, the response from universities appears to focus on ways to make the experience easier for the students, for example, by recruiting more student advisors. While this is not necessarily a bad thing in itself – and of course might benefit students who are struggling with personal or social issues – it is making the assumption that lack of support is the main reason that people are leaving.

Alternatively, the response from the Office for Students is that it’s the courses that are the problem rather than the students. However, this does rather raise questions about why some students are able to attain. Again, the elephant in the room is the suggestion that some students may simply not be academically able enough to cope with the demands of university (and for the record, that is ok!).

As noted earlier, university is not necessarily for everyone, and failure to accept that will inevitably lead to a situation where administrators have no option but to manipulate grades to achieve their quotas. This is an option that many of my colleagues might (privately) admit already happens – albeit on an informal basis – with many of us facing pressure ‘not to let students fail’. However, should this become formalised (an option that I can genuinely envisage happening), one can imagine the impact not only for the education system, but also for the students themselves. How will these students feel about themselves, knowing that the only way they can pass is to have grades lowered for them? Moreover – how will the other students feel, knowing that others can be awarded the same grade as them despite being unable to achieve the necessary standards?

Arguably, these questions speak to a larger problem within society – the current fashion for believing that everyone should receive the same outcome (e.g. acceptance to university, good grades etc) regardless of merit. While it could be argued that equality of outcome goals such as this are well-intentioned, we really have to question who such policies benefit – when it certainly isn’t the students, or society at large.

Before I come across as being too negative however, I want to highlight that my initial post was an argument for programmes based on equality of opportunity principles – programmes which give disadvantaged students additional support to ‘bring them up’ to the level of their more advantaged counterparts. Such programmes assume that this extra support should help to compensate for difficulties that may have prevented the student from achieving their full academic potential. In addition to this, students are also schooled on the relevant personal, social and academic skills that would allow them to thrive at university, therefore addressing some of the social problems that might have contributed to their difficulties.

Furthermore, lest I be accused of discriminating against disadvantaged students, I would also like to highlight that I have worked for a number of the aforementioned Widening Access programmes. Indeed I would even consider myself a champion of ‘equality of opportunity’ policies, believing, as I do, that all students who are qualified, and motivated, to attend university, should be able to do so. My wish is that policy-makers, universities and politicians would follow similar principles, instead of setting increasing numbers of students up for failure by attempting to push them through a system they are not ready for. Ultimately, in such cases, the only people who suffer are the students, while the administrators and politicians revel in the ‘success’ of their quota-based box-ticking exercises.





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