Why UK Universities Don’t Use Affirmative Action
In light of the recent Supreme Court ruling, Features Editor Callum Martin considers why affirmative action never came to UK universities.
Last month, the US Supreme Court banned the use of race-based affirmative action in American universities. The practice, used by colleges for over 50 years, aimed to address long-standing inequalities in the education system by ensuring that race was considered as a factor in the admissions process. Until 1978, universities could use racial quotas, but since then affirmative action has meant minority students being given certain allowances in terms of admissions standards, to balance out the disadvantages they may have previously experienced due to their race.
The Supreme Court justified its decision by arguing that the scheme violated the US Constitution’s equal protection clause by ‘positively discriminating’ against students from majority racial backgrounds. Chief Justice John Roberts stated, “College admissions are zero-sum, and a benefit provided to some applicants but not to others necessarily advantages the former at the expense of the latter.” He went on to say that “eliminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it.”
As the ruling has brought the controversial policy back into the global conversation, I thought I would investigate why it was never implemented in the UK.
On the face of it, the fact that affirmative action never took off in Britain may seem surprising. After all, over the last half-century, the government has introduced many policies attempting to address race-based inequality. Just last year the government set out its ‘Inclusive Britain’ strategy, involving no less than 70 pledges designed to “tackle racial disparities.” Whether or not such actions actually have an impact, it is clear the UK government is desperate to at least appear to be handling the issue.
And affirmative action does actually work. While US colleges are still not nearly representative, the data shows that in states where they previously banned the scheme, the removal of the policy meant that non-white students were 23% less likely to get into top schools.
Removal of the policy meant that non-white students were 23% less likely to get into top schools.
Given the government’s desperation to appear to be reducing racial disparities, and the apparent effectiveness of affirmative action in doing so, why was the policy never introduced?
Firstly, you must understand the circumstances that led to implementation in the US, and how the situation in the UK differed. The American policy was introduced largely in response to a wave of social unrest that swept across the country in the mid-1960s. After police killed a 15-year-old black boy in Harlem, a surge of ‘race riots’ spread through major US cities. The violent and chaotic nature of these protests put immense pressure on the government to do more to address racial inequality.
Lyndon Johnson’s left-wing government responded with Executive Order 11246, which required the use of affirmative action by employers working under government contracts. Due to student pressure, affirmative action soon spread to universities, with the Dean of Harvard announcing his commitment to the policy in 1968. The following year, enrolment of black students at Harvard jumped 76%.
In the early 1980s, the UK almost went down a very similar path. Britain experienced its own wave of racial unrest in 1981, again sparked by police discrimination against black citizens. Whereas in the US the protests spread from Harlem, here they spread from Brixton.
In response, the Home Office commissioned the Scarman Report to investigate the riots and make recommendations on how to address the causal issues. In his report, Lord Scarman recommended the implementation of policies he referred to as “positive discrimination”, aka affirmative action.
In different circumstances, perhaps under a Labour government, the impetus of these riots and Lord Scarman’s recommendations could have easily led to affirmative action. As it was, the country was led by Margaret Thatcher’s socially conservative administration, and the suggestions of the report were largely ignored, with the government opting for more aggressive police powers and the fostering of increased suspicion towards immigration.
In different circumstances, perhaps under a Labour government, the impetus of these riots and Lord Scarman’s recommendations could easily have led to affirmative action.
There is little doubt why Thatcher and all subsequent Conservative Prime Ministers have steered clear of affirmative action – the policy is incredibly unpopular amongst right-wing voters. In the US, the scheme had only a 14% approval rate amongst adults identifying as right-wing or right-leaning. Historically, the vast majority of Tory support has been white, and most of those from the minority groups that would benefit from affirmative action, already support Labour anyway.
Implementing affirmative action in Britain would also be especially difficult due to a more practical issue – the decentralisation of our university admissions process. While in the US students are accepted to a university, in Britain students are accepted to a course. Critical admissions decisions are made at a departmental level, meaning a lack of central accountability and a roadblock to sweeping system changes. This issue is exacerbated at Oxford and Cambridge, where the power of individual colleges further fragments the process.
One final, and very important barrier to implementation is that support for the policy from minorities is not as concrete as one might expect.
A surprising study from The Economist in the US has found that only 36% of black adults supported the policy, while 47% disapprove. There are clear indicators that this disapproval can be found in the UK. “Race for Opportunity”, a British campaign that fights for racial equality in business, calls affirmative action, “not only illegal, but in our view, unhelpful.” This viewpoint arises from negative unintended consequences minority students face from affirmative action, with accusations from opponents that they did not earn their place, and are just ‘ticking a box’.
Furthermore, the policy often causes enmity amongst the majority students who miss out on admission as a result. In America, this bitterness took the form of hostility between Asian-American and African-American students. In the words of Herman Ouseley, former chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, “You don’t build good race relations if you create resentment.”
So will we ever see affirmative action in UK Universities? Due to the enduring divisiveness of the scheme, a lack of a sufficient impetus, and structural roadblocks, it seems unlikely. We can only hope representation in universities can be achieved through alternative means.