Should We Lower Standards To Help The Disadvantaged?


The case has some plausible reasoning underlying it. If some people lack the advantages that others have, we could compensate for that by lowering the standards that people from deprived backgrounds are required to meet.  For example, if it takes 3 passes at A* level to gain university admission, we could lower that to an A and 2 Bs for those whose poorer backgrounds and schooling gave them less chance of achieving those 3 A*s.  It might be as hard for them to secure ABB than it is for their more affluent counterparts to secure 3 A* passes.

On the down side of this is the fact that we would be admitting people with lower qualifications to university, lowering the overall quality of the graduates produced.  Given a choice, most people would choose to be operated on by the surgeon who gained 3 A*s than by the one for whom allowances were made to compensate for their background.  If UK universities were to admit people with lower qualifications, their standing in world rankings would decline against those which admitted on merit.

There is also a view that a pass should indicate performance, not effort.  We are more interested in the level attained than in the moral virtue of those who strive to attain it.  Affirmative Action is opposed by many on this very principle.  Someone should be in a job, they say, because they merit it, not because their cultural or ethnic background should allow them in with lower qualifications.  If those backgrounds do indeed make it harder for people from them to qualify, the effort should be made to redress that fact, not to lower the qualifying level for some groups.  The aim should not be to lower the bar, but to ensure that as many as possible can reach it, regardless of their background.

Some backgrounds are harder than others to rise up from, so the effort should be put into making it less hard, into identifying merit where we can, and in beating a pathway before it so people can rise up on merit without needing any special consideration.  This is undoubtedly harder to do than simply lowering standards, but it does lead to a higher level of excellence that more talented people can aspire to attain.

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  1. >lowering the overall quality of the graduates produced

    The idea is that the teaching on the course will be so good that by the end of the degree this disadvantaged student will be doing as well as the other students.

    In fact, this student may well get a good a degree as the others, but only because of grade inflation.

    >Someone should be in a job, they say, because they merit it

    And a few people like me hold another view again: that someone should be in a job if the person paying them the money is prepared to give them the money for the work.

  2. Given a choice, most people would choose to be operated on by the surgeon who gained 3 A*s than by the one for whom allowances were made to compensate for their background.
    I would be more interested in the quality of their degree, to be frank. That measures how people do when (more) free of the influence of their home environment.

      • Q46: and is not a matter of inherited characteristics?
        I believe that intelligence as displayed in individuals is a combination of nature and nurture. And, as a direct consequence of this, some people are ‘up against’ it during their schools years as a result of their family, their economic circumstances, their neighbourhood or their classmates.
        Given that we are already sending too many people to university these days, we might as well make use of the otherwise wasted capacity to give a few people a chance to catch up.

  3. I have heard that some of the A* grades come from coaching, rather than ability. As a consequence, they do not necessarily perform better than those admitted with slightly lower grades. It is up to the universities to spot talent, not just rely on A level grades.

  4. Affirmative action doesn’t work. The US has three decades of experience in affirmative action for African Americans and it has improved their overall lot not one jot. There is of course a new class of African American scammers in cushy jobs as a result of affirmative action just like there’s a lot of female HR directors in European companies.

  5. When I did them there were no A*s but if you had three As you were well into the 99th percentile. Grading like that really sorted pupils at least on the ability to do exams.

    Now, if it is to be fair to give pupils a break for disadvantage, won’t parents clamour to prove that they qualify? Are the smart Chinese kids disadvantaged? Surely girls do better than boys so they would need higher grades, and poor white boys do worst of all, they tell us, so they should get the best deal. Or, perish the thought, is it all subject to current PC prejudices and only the fashionable victim groups will be the beneficiaries?

  6. This is already happening in University admissions. So the horse has already bolted. It is disguised and called something else but in essence there are different academic achievement standards in British Higher Education and affirmative action–however defined–is a fact.

  7. Choices: operated on by a cardiovascular surgeon admitted to university with the old higher standards or one admitted with the new lower standards to give not so bright dear old Buggins a chance?

    Didn’t Adam Smith deal with this? Consumption is sole end and purpose of all production; the interests of producers are to be considered only as much as they serve the interests of consumers.

    So is reducing standards for the sake of consumers or providers?