The 2013 film Admission is a comedy-drama about the professional and romantic trials of Portia Nathan (Tina Fey), an intrepid Princeton University admissions officer. At one point in the movie, Helen (Sonya Walger), an Englishwoman and eminent Virginia Woolf scholar from the University of Cambridge, takes a dig at Portia: “I’ll never really understand your admissions system in America, because we just do tests. You know, we don’t really care about your childhood or your recent conversion to Buddhism. Gray matter — that’s what counts.”
Helen has reason to be smug about her British pedigree. For the better part of the past millennium, the University of Oxford (founded in 1096) and its perennial rival, the University of Cambridge (founded in 1209), have survived with admissions schemes based entirely on intellectual merit — and wholly devoid of “affirmative action” policies. But more than having merely survived, the two oldest English-speaking institutions of higher learning in the world have prospered. They have inspired an endless list of prodigious minds, tendered innumerable contributions to human civilization, and, not surprisingly, consistently claimed top spots in global academic rankings.
Yet, for the Reverend Jesse Jackson, a captain of the American race industry, “Oxbridge” — as Oxford and Cambridge are collectively known — is not up to snuff. During a recent trip to England, he asserted that “the absence of blacks diminishes the greatness of these universities.” In turn, he called on the country to implement “positive access” to increase the number of ethnic minorities at elite institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge.
Jackson is destined to lose this fight — badly — for three reasons. First, as social-democratic as Britain may be, a streak of big-L Liberalism (akin to conservatism in the American political spectrum of today) still runs through its national ethos, one that cherishes merit and individual liberty and, therefore, prefers equality of opportunity to equality of outcome. Indeed, British law generally prohibits quotas for “protected characteristics,” such as age, race, and sex, in education, employment, and association. Oxford and Cambridge — rightfully so — spend millions of dollars annually on outreach programs to recruit the brightest students from underrepresented backgrounds. Commitment to “widening participation,” noted Jon Beard, director of undergraduate recruitment at Cambridge, “is a matter of social responsibility and enlightened self-interest, not a consequence of external targets or political pressure.”
That Jackson has largely disregarded context, the fact that “diversity” in Britain has traditionally been far more about class than race, is the second reason he is heading toward defeat. Tellingly, the dominant political faction on the left in Britain for the past century has been the Labour party, not the Liberal party. American leftists such as Jackson, who are preoccupied with “identity,” are out of step with British leftists, who continue to see class as the principal engine of history.
And the third reason that Jackson is bound to look a fool? Reality — plain and simple. Oxford and Cambridge’s enduring record of excellence obliterates the pervasive left-wing notion, propagated by organizations such as the Washington Higher Education Secretariat, that “diversity” is essential to an exceptional education as well as the moral enlightenment of a student body. By this point, probably no one harbors misgivings about the quality of the curricula that have yielded Oxbridge’s vast intellectual achievements.
As for Oxbridge undergraduates themselves, I doubt that anyone — save perhaps Jackson and the other most zealous crusaders of multiculturalism — believes that they are maladjusted brutes due to the absence of affirmative action on their campuses. “I’m concerned that when 21 colleges at Oxbridge took no black students last year,” Jackson said, “the students are being cheated of a multicultural and multiracial experience in a world that is multicultural and multiracial.” Having spent four years at one of America’s largest public institutions of higher learning, The Pennsylvania State University, and four years at Cambridge, I can personally assure Jackson that British undergraduates are no less tolerant, cosmopolitan, and open-minded — especially about race — than their Atlantic cousins.
Jackson’s push for Oxbridge to admit more black students exposes the flaw of all progressive endeavors that seek greater equality via benchmarks. Influenced less by tangible data than by selfish political aspirations and emotionally attractive pledges, they boil down to nothing more than sanctimonious excursions in social engineering. (I am reminded of when Tony Blair, then the head of the Labour party and the prime minister, rather arbitrarily decided that at least half of all British citizens younger than 30 should take part in higher education.)
In Jackson’s mind, what percentage of Oxbridge’s constituency must be black in order to achieve a true state of egalitarianism? In 2012, 215 candidates who self-identified as “Black or Black British — African,” “Black or Black British — Caribbean,” and “Other Black background” applied to Oxford. Of those, 22 were successful, representing less than 1 percent of all (2,695) acceptances. At Cambridge, 190 candidates who self-identified as “Black Caribbean,” “Black African,” and “Black Other” applied. Of those, 28 were successful, representing approximately 1 percent of all (2,593) acceptances. As a point of reference, 3 percent (1.9 million) of the British population (63 million) is black or black British. Let us propose that Oxford and Cambridge create a black target of 3 percent to ensure that their student bodies are “representative” of the wider British population. Can Jackson guarantee that there are enough black individuals in any given year capable of meeting Oxbridge’s academic requirements, let alone interested in applying to Oxbridge? It seems unlikely. It should go without saying that the same complications could arise when applying this logic to another racial or ethnic minority, depending on whether the minority in question over- or underachieves relative to the majority.
And therein lies the rub. Even if Oxbridge and other top-flight universities across the globe were able to somehow satisfy quotas and fulfill preference goals, how could America’s hundreds of public institutions possibly be expected to do the same? Not every institution of higher learning in the United States draws its students from a select international pool of talent; academic standards, accordingly, would necessarily have to be lowered for certain groups of candidates. This, of course, is what has widely occurred. Unfortunate consequences include underperformance and disproportionately high dropout rates among minorities.
The example of Oxbridge, then, is clearly worth examining in greater detail, particularly given that the laws governing admissions in America have returned to the spotlight. In October, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action. At issue is the constitutionality of a 2006 amendment to the Michigan constitution — approved by a majority of the state’s electorate — that prohibits public universities from discriminating against, or granting preferential treatment to, any individual on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin.
Those who treasure individual liberty ought to admire Oxbridge for its persistent dedication to the principle that equality of opportunity rather than outcome is the only genuine form of equality. “All applications are blind,” a member of the Cambridge admissions office told me. “To ensure that the most capable candidates end up on the course, it’s solely about academic merit.”
If one sincerely believes that the purpose of the university is to provide, first and foremost, an education, then there cannot be a better system of admissions than one that exclusively rewards academic accomplishment. Not only is this the simplest system, but it is also the system that is fairest to everyone.
— Jonathan Bronitsky earned his master’s in international relations and doctorate in history from the University of Cambridge. You can follow him on Twitter @jbronitsky.