Saturday, 7 April 2012

Philosopher's Stone or Crystal Ball?

“Should Universities Give Preference to Poor Applicants?”

This question was asked by the American philosopher Michael Sandel a few days ago in a debate broadcast on BBC Radio 4:

The discussion is engaging and is excellently fielded and summarised by Sandel, though some listeners may find the overall debate somewhat inconclusive. Even admitting that the issues are immensely fraught, and may even be irreconcilable, I suspect that Sandel holds a position that he refrained from putting forward. So whilst there is much to consider in what is presented, there is also an underlying sense that we have only touched the surface of something much deeper.

Though it wasn’t mentioned directly during the debate, it seems to me that the whole issue hinges on the difference between attainment on the one hand and potential on the other. These two things are by no means equivalent, but since potential is nigh-on impossible to accurately predict in advance we have to use the next best thing, which turns out to be track record: usually in the form of attainment (most often measured in grades). In art schools we take relatively little account of grades so long as the minimum are covered (though the minimum seems to have risen in recent times). Art students are accepted or rejected, in the main, according to their ‘readiness’ suggested by their application portfolio. But once again, this is still to some degree a rough substitute for that philosopher’s stone that we call potential.

I can’t imagine that anyone seriously doubts that uncertain quantities of applicants simply slip through the net because of this problem? The question, of course, is how might universities deal with it better? The University of Texas have an interesting solution. They offer places to any students in the top 10% from any state school regardless of grades, which means that no matter how poor your school is and how low your grades are on a state level, you’d still be offered a place if you are in the top 10% of students.


James A said...

I've read somewhere recently that parents in Texas are now deliberately seeking out poor schools, where they can be sure that their offspring will come out in the top 10%!

J. Hamlyn said...

Ah human ingenuity eh! - I guess there could be a positive side effect of this influx too though, but yes it certainly seems to complicate the issue somewhat. I had a feeling that the solution couldn't be quite so simple.

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