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Great Levellers


The Great Levellers

by Kenneth Lyen

Education and death are said to be the great levellers.

In an ideal world, education is supposed to grant children from a disadvantaged background an equal opportunity to compete with those from a privileged one. It is therefore worrying when a country fails to maintain a fairness in their educational system, especially when the present government professes an ideology of ironing out social injustices.

The Sutton Trust in the United Kingdom has just published a report where they found that 45% of private pupils with an A and two Bs or better at A-level went to one of the UK's 13 highest-ranked universities. However, for equivalent state-educated teenagers the figure was only 26%. Universities were acting in the more privileged independent schools' "favour".

It is a worldwide observation that graduates from a country’s leading universities are more likely to have better social networks, better jobs and higher salaries. Hence a system that discriminates against those from a lower socioeconomic background leads to a potential waste of talent.

This is in the wake of the highly publicised Laura Spence affair, in which Oxford University rejected a student from a comprehensive (neighbourhood) school in Tyneside to study medicine and she went to Harvard instead. At that time, government ministers put pressure on elite institutions to admit more working class students.

It is not known where the problem arises. Is it because of the "old boy" network in which headmasters and teachers from independent school call up their buddies now in authoritative positions in the better universities? Is it during the admission interviews where students from a higher class family presents themselves with greater aplomb? Or is it just that independent schools provide their students with a better curriculum vitae especially when factors such as sporting prowess and other extracurricular activities count significantly in university applications? Or is it because universities have found that given equivalent O’level, A’level or International Baccalaureate scores, students from the privileged independent school students fare better in the university's internal exams, or contribute more to the university's social life?

University admission is a complex process. Answers may never be found as to why there is an apparent discrimination against students from less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds. At least in the United Kingdom, there is an openness that allows for such debates to take place.