The obsession with meritocracy in university admissions is misguided: here’s why

Universities are more than merely merit-obsessed, mechanical institutions

There is an almost routine, certainly mundane argument that is launched against any and all forms of affirmative action policies adopted by universities – whether it be quotas, preferential or favourable admissions methodologies that are cognizant of the prospective students’ academic environments, or more subtle methods of rectifying and combating historical injustice. The argument is centred around the opaque notion of meritocracy, couched in the terms of stressing the importance of meritocracy, and meritocracy alone, as the selection criteria that universities should adopt. If it is true that universities must solely be meritocratic in admissions, all forms of affirmative action policies are unjustifiably distortionary, and must hence be rejected.

This is a fallacious argument. It falls, not just for the obvious reason that university admissions do not solely have the obligation of selecting based on merit, but because affirmative action – if anything – facilitates a better and more genuine attainment of meritocracy in admissions.

Recognise that the ‘differences in quality’ in the first place are often far less significant than some polemics like to believe. Quotas are often implemented in a manner that render the admitted individual, at most, marginally worse than the non-admitted individual in their initial attainment and skill. This makes sense from a practical point of view – university administrators have little to no incentives in devising quota systems that admit substantially academically weaker students, who are unlikely to benefit from or find conducive the particular environments afforded to them. Students with vastly inferior academic capabilities would also be unlikely to imagine themselves thriving in such environments in the first place. Thus, the ‘difference in merit’, to begin with, is unlikely to be significant.

Even if there exists some disparity in initial attainment, the meritocracy-obsessed argument neglects the fact that merit and ability are dynamic; they evolve in response to coaching, support, teaching, and peer-based positive reinforcements. The initial attainment gap between the admitted student and the non-admitted student can be easily closed over time. Thus, in retrospect, it is not clear why the admitted student is any less deserving than the student who is allegedly ‘displaced’.

The dynamicity of merit also lies in its ambiguous definition, which is important for two reasons. The first reason is that it is not clear why merit must only map onto so-called ‘objective’, academic attainment and results. Surely, the ability to work hard, the ability to think beyond the curriculum, the enriched appreciation of the real-life implications of curricular content are all equally valid alternative metrics of merit. It is deeply unclear why someone with 1 or 2 more A*s is necessarily, if at all, also superior in all of these other aspects. If affirmative action policies enable the recognition of a hardworking student over a student with 1 more A*, who is to say this isn’t merely meritocracy with an alternative yet equally valid metric?

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The second reason is that metrics of merit are often constructed – explicitly or implicitly – by dominant social pressures and forces. Elites often pick and choose metrics as bases of apparent ‘merit’, so as to favour group closure and a continued monopoly of access to privilege (see Weber or James Coleman for more on this). For example, the deliberate decision of including Latin knowledge in admissions to certain private schools and, up until a few decades ago, certain Oxford degrees, or the tendency for certain corporations to feature interview stages that heavily test for so-called ‘cultural capital’ etc. are all examples of where the metric of merit is designed and enforced arbitrarily and selectively. It is not clear why the state-designed curriculum in examinations is the ultimate or most accurate arbitrator of merit. It is even less clear why obscurantist tests, acting as effective hurdles for disadvantaged individuals, should be accorded much weighting or recognition as objective measures of ability.

The upshot of all of the above is that affirmative action policies are not intrinsically opposed to meritocracy. Yet a further argument is that they actively facilitate the promotion and cultivation of merit in individuals. Firstly, the certainty of quotas affords disadvantaged individuals a much-needed glimmer of hope and mental boost (against potentially discouraging teachers, HE advisors, and even parents) that motivate them to both aspire towards and apply for admissions into universities, if not more traditionally competitive ones. Secondly, affirmative action policies also provide school administrators in underprivileged areas with the bargaining capital to campaign for more resources, or a more efficient allocation of resources, in supporting one or more of their students in applying for competitive universities. Thirdly, affirmative action policies ensure that in face of bigotry and exclusion, students from minority backgrounds can collectivise and find solace in each other’s support. Above all, affirmative action taps into the undiscovered or underdiscovered merit in individuals – such as the African-American who would never have applied to an Ivy League school (due to their Impostor Syndrome) had it not been for the positive nudge, or the young woman who grows up being told by misogynistic teachers that STEM subjects are not the right choice for her. These are all reasons why affirmative action in fact bolsters meritocracy, as opposed to detracting from it.

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Yet even if an admission decision is indeed un-meritocratic, and even if none of the above refutations apply or hold, it still remains highly unclear as to why university admissions must only care about meritocracy. Public facilities, infrastructure, or even consumer goods are rarely rationed on the basis of merit; in particular, access to public facilities and welfare is often rationed on the basis of need or aggregate social utility. Why should the case of universities be any different? If offering an ethnic minority member from a historically oppressed community a place at university means that their community acquires a new role model, their family gains a stable source of income, and the academic discourse at the university benefits much from their presence, is it not profoundly evident that the university has a strong reason to forego selecting purely based on merit, in exchange for an outcome that is both socially advantageous and desirable?

Here, one may object and argue that universities ought not instrumentalise the lives of individuals so as to achieve some broader social objectives. Whilst this argument against instrumentalisation may well be true in a vacuum, it misses the point raised above. The point is not that universities should instrumentalise their students in a vacuum – but that given the limited number of university spaces available, universities have the right, and with good reason, to introduce considerations beyond mere narrow meritocracy as bases for selections. Furthermore, this charge of instrumentalisation becomes less relevant when it can be pointed out that the students, admitted through affirmative action, also have much to gain through the academic experience.

Universities are more than merely merit-obsessed, mechanical institutions that robotically take in solely the most ‘meritorious’. Even if they are concerned with merit in general, there exist plenty of reasons as to why meritocracy is better attained in the presence of affirmative action, especially when the ideal of meritocracy is built on grounds that are far more flimsy and arbitrary than critics of affirmative action would have one believe. The obsession with meritocracy in university admissions is therefore not only misguided, but also deeply damaging to the pursuit of both excellence and equality (not mutually exclusive!) across universities.