The United States Supreme Court’s meritocracy verdict in favour of Students for Fair Admissions has triggered a seismic shift in the landscape of higher education.
The crux of the case centred on the contentious practice of using race as a factor in university admissions. Asian students argued that they were being discriminated against — denied entry to highly-coveted universities — solely because of their ethnic background.
At the same time, the universities were giving admission preferences to black students. By siding with the Asian students, the Supreme Court has made it clear that ethnicity and race (mere accidents of birth) should not determine one’s opportunities.
The capability, drive, and character of applicants are what counts; not the language they speak, the religion they follow or the colour of their skin.
Not surprisingly, the ruling whipped up a storm of controversy, but the critics are missing the point.
The Court’s decision does not represent a setback but a leap forward in the pursuit of an equitable society. It reaffirms the virtue of meritocracy and the core principle of equality under the law — a common law value also shared by Australia, and outlined in my upcoming paper, In Defence of Meritocracy.
The critics are misguided because they conflate the pursuit of diversity with fair equality of opportunity. They are not the same thing.
Diversity is a worthy goal. University students do not just absorb facts from lecturers; they also learn from other students.
A multicultural student body enriches higher education by exposing students to different cultures and customs. It also teaches them the value of acceptance, tolerance, and inclusion. These lessons are just as crucial to the health of our society as anything undergraduates learn in the lecture theatre.
The Supreme Court agrees. Its decision does not mean the end of campus diversity. Universities can still use outreach programs, scholarships, mentors, and support services to attract, retain, and encourage students from various backgrounds. What they cannot do is discriminate on the basis of racial or ethnic identity.
The court ruling provides a significant opportunity for reflection in Australia. It invites us to reconsider whether our policies foster fairness and equal opportunity.
All Australian universities have special entry programs for members of underrepresented groups, particularly indigenous students.
These programs have not been controversial because, unlike Asian students in America, our universities have not excluded students from one group to make room for students from another.
Instead, our universities have expanded to accommodate more applicants. However, there are some courses, such as medicine, where expansion is restricted, and great care is required to ensure that entry criteria do not favour one group over another.
The same is true for everyday student life. As someone who grew up in the USA during the segregation era, I cringe when I hear that Australian universities plan to develop student housing reserved for a particular race. The benefit of campus diversity is its ability to teach students how to get on together in a multiracial society. Creating racial enclaves negates this opportunity.
Critics of the Supreme Court decision claim that discrimination in favour of some groups is a remedial measure for historical injustices.
Proponents have made similar arguments in favour of the proposed Indigenous Voice to Parliament. Although the details remain opaque, the primary intention of the Voice proposal is to provide recognition, respect and representation for historically marginalised indigenous people.
These are noble goals, but we must ensure that the Voice serves to provide fair equality of opportunity to marginalised people and does not morph into an arena for race-based preferences.
The challenge lies in striking a delicate balance between the principles of meritocracy and restorative justice.
In his stirring speech on the steps of Washington’s Lincoln Memorial in 1963, Rev Martin Luther King Jr presented a vision of equality that embodied the egalitarian ideal. He implored his fellow citizens not to judge people by the colour of their skin but by the contents of their character.
King knew that justice isn’t about engineering equality of outcomes but ensuring fair equality of opportunities.
It is moral and right to fight against racial biases and work towards a truly egalitarian society. Still, for the good of our country, we must avoid the temptation to institutionalise identity-based preferences in universities, employment, and government.
Our goal should be an Australia in which individuals are not merely representatives of racial or ethnic groups but unique, capable, and contributing individuals.
Emeritus Professor Steven Schwartz, AM, led the review of university admissions in England. He is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, former vice chancellor of Murdoch, Macquarie and Brunel Universities, and the former Chairman of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Agency.
Image by Jack Moreh