A common criticism of affirmative action programmes – such as the idea that state school students should get lower grade offers from universities – is that under such a system, students who are not necessarily the best from a meritocratic point of view will occupy positions within an institution at the expense of those who are more capable, and thus more deserving. Such a view is scarcely uncontroversial and it is implied whenever the argument is made that an improvement in state school education, rather than the affirmative action, should be the primary method used to reduce class inequality at institutions such as Oxbridge.

For example, last year the former Shadow Education Secretary, Stephen Twigg, called for the teaching of formal debating and public speaking skills (Twigg used the expression ‘life skills’) at state schools as a way of imitating private school education, which he thought would increase the chances of their students being admitted to top universities, as well as achieving later success in the workplace. Implicit in Twigg’s proposal is the notion that it is okay for university admissions to remain a one-size-fits-all meritocracy, as the burden of reducing inequality was primarily the responsibility of state schools, which should act more like private schools.

However, recent research from the field of psychology has challenged the integrity of many of the reservations people have about affirmative action, specifically the claim that such programmes will lead to the mediocratisation of world-class institutions as a consequence of the pursuit of equality. For example, four researchers from the University of Warwick published a paper last year that suggests that those from less advantaged backgrounds may be underperforming academically due to factors entirely reversible and dependent on certain elements of their environment – elements that should ideally be eliminated at university.

In one of their experiments, two groups of participants both performed a standard IQ test, one group ‘rich’, the other ‘poor’, as defined by household income. The two groups were also given a problem preceding the IQ test; this was either related to financial decision-making (involving varying amounts of money), or was a control problem unrelated to finances. The researchers found that there was no difference in IQ between the two groups when the preceding problem was unrelated to finance but, when it did relate to finance and, furthermore, when it involved large sums of money, subjects in the ‘poor’ group had reductions in their IQ score of up to thirteen points, with no such effect present within the ‘rich’ group.

In another experiment – this time a field study carried out in an agricultural area of India – the researchers found that the Indian farmers whose income depended on their sugar cane harvest had higher IQs in periods of prosperity (post-harvest) compared to periods of relative poverty (pre-harvest). That is, their IQ was dependent on their relative wealth at the time of testing.

According to the researchers, the results of these experiments can be explained by the idea that poverty impedes cognitive function. Thus, those with a lower household income experience unique stresses, such as having to manage a sporadic income, or greater budgetary concerns, and these stresses have a pervasive effect on an individual’s cognition, even when they are not directly in mind. As such, simply ‘being poor’ imposes a load on an individual’s attentional and memory systems which in turn reduces, for as long as this context is present, that individual’s fluid intelligence. A good way to conceptualise it is to imagine the less well-off participants as simultaneously completing a Sudoku during the IQ test, whilst the richer participants are free to focus solely on the test.     

The implication of this research is that we must rethink the dismissal of affirmative action programmes discussed here. That is, we cannot justify the argument that granting different grade offers to individuals dependent on household income will affect the level of attainment within an institution. This is because many people from poorer backgrounds are only failing to reach their maximum academic capacity whilst still at home studying for secondary education as they continue to face the sort of financial hardships students from privileged backgrounds do not experience to the same level (such as deciding whether to work full time or continue studying, parental pressures to earn an income, or less financial aid from parents). However, at university these same inhibiting factors – thanks to a system of grants and financial support not available during secondary education – are less obtrusive. This means, in line with the research considered here, that such students should find themselves in a position to flourish academically, as financial issues are no longer the limiting factor they were earlier. This perhaps is in part reflected by the fact that state school students outperform their private school counterparts at university.

Of course, university is not the academic paradise envisaged here and it would be naïve to suggest money is no longer an issue after admission. The solution, then, must lie in an admissions system in which grade requirements are tuned to household income (a simple state/fee-paying split is perhaps too simplistic a divide), which is then matched by sufficient financial support once a place has been gained, so that individuals are able to study free from earlier hindrances.

These are the first steps we should be taking to reduce class inequality at university, before we even begin to improve state education, as many people who are already competent enough to study and prosper at top universities are being failed by the over-simplistic nature of the admissions procedure. We must, more than ever, remain vigilant against budgetary cuts at universities, the effects of which are apparently more damning then was initially anticipated.