Response to accusations of ‘social engineering’

This is a response to Julie Henry’s article in the Telegraph here:

In my role as Student President, I often make the case that the University does not do enough to serve society and make sure that places are given to those who would benefit most. So it makes my job considerably more difficult when articles like the one in the Telegraph today, attacking the use of contextual data, come out. Needless to say, the entire argument is little more than a train wreck of elitism and middle-class sense of entitlement, but I feel that I must respond.


I find the tone of the article completely repugnant. Throughout it all are self-righteous assertions of entitlement. For instance, Henry quotes some anonymous critics who claim that the points system

amounted to “generic discrimination” against middle-class families

The use of contextual data is only one example of the inequality that middle-class people face everyday under working-class oppression, but it is a terrible one.  Henry summarises the great risks to these measures when she announces that they could result in “middle class children face losing out to children with lower grades”. This is daylight robbery: how dare working-class students steal university places from their rightful owners?

So if the use of contextual data is ‘unfair’ and ‘discrimination’ the this raises the question of who actually deserves the places, but in the article this is anything but clear.

Who deserves a place at university?

I believe that universities are public services which should serve the whole of society. Consequently, the students who are admitted should be the ones who would gain most from the experience. This undoubtedly includes a huge number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds who have missed out on the high quality education that their wealthier peers have enjoyed: the more education that you’ve already had the less that you’ll benefit from a bit more.

However, I realise that society is not as progressive or egalitarian as I would like it to be, and elite universities like Edinburgh see themselves as existing for those with the greatest academic potential who they expect will achieve the most over the course of their degree. This is irrespective of their academic qualifications up to now. Of course, these kinds of predictions are difficult to make, but it is telling that in Henry’s article it states that

since contextual data had been used, the university had seen improvements in the performance and retention of students.

The message is simple: even by universities’ current narrow focus on what they see as ‘academic excellence’, the use of contextual data leads to better outcomes. So, contrary to her article, it is the Universities who use contextual data who are basing their admissions on merit. It’s a truly astonishing feat of doublethink that Henry notes this without acknowledging that it contradicts many of the points elsewhere. But more importantly, it raises doubts about what Henry believes that universities are for.

‘Social engineering’

This brings us to the accusation of ‘social engineering’: the idea that universities are tampering with the natural order of things. With no contextual data, university admissions are based on grades alone, so this is presumably what Henry sees as the natural way. However, we already know that  school grades alone are though are not good predictors of university performance. In fact, the characteristics that they best measure are social class and quality of schooling. This should come as no surprise – if private schooling didn’t lead to better grades then the schools would go out of business.

Given that grades are not an adequate indicator of ‘natural ability’, in my view, therefore, it is the Universities who base their admissions on grades alone who are the true culprits of social engineering. These Universities, through using artificially enhanced estimations of ability, are essentially discriminating against working class people. This is not massively surprising, as discrimination against working-class people, unlike Henry’s purported discrimination against the middle class, is not only real but is a major means of structuring our entire society.

If Henry had any commitment to social justice, equality or social mobility then she would support the use of contextual data. Instead, she takes the Victorian view that universities should be the training ground for the next generation of rich and powerful, drawn from the children of the last.


One thought on “Response to accusations of ‘social engineering’

  1. If someone gets straight A*s, writes an outstanding personal statement and has done loads of extra-curricular activities (eg gold DofE) there is not much more they can do to get into uni. To be overtaken by someone with Bs is hardly selecting on merit. It’s also quite patronising to say that people from low income families cannot get into uni on merit; lots of people from low income families get into uni on merit.

    If we did what you advocate, instead of rich, caring parents sending their children to independent schools, they would send their children to worse schools on purpose to give them greater opportunities. I think it’s pretty obvious that wealthy, educated, caring parents are going to want to produce academic children.

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