In a heavily anticipated decision, the United States Supreme Court recently ruled that two major US universities (including Harvard) were unconstitutionally using race as a factor in determining admission. Harvard in particular, appeared to be using a blunt, race-based, affirmative action policy to create a particular racial mix on campus.
Although Australia lacks the constitutional protection of rights that was determinative in the US decision, nevertheless it illuminates the deep conflict over equality of outcome and equality of opportunity that is every bit as relevant in Australia.
Black and Latino students were the beneficiaries of Harvard’s admissions policy, but the biggest losers were undeniably Asian-American students. As the majority justices noted at one point, a black student in the fourth lowest academic decile has a higher chance of admission than an Asian-American student in the top decile.
It is worth noting that Harvard did not argue affirmative action was needed to remedy previous discrimination (the most common argument in favour of affirmative action but one previously ruled unconstitutional in 2003), instead claiming diversity itself is essential to higher education.
Unfortunately diversity was little more that code word for crude racial balancing. As some commentators noted Harvard’s racial categories and method of adjusting for race in admissions policy were overly broad and quite superficial.
Regardless of these problems, this case is being framed as a reactionary conservative assault on the cherished principle of affirmative action. This response is flawed in several respects.
First, it is far from clear that most people support affirmative action in general or at elite colleges. in particular. For example, a 2022 Pew Center poll found that 74% of respondents thought race and ethnicity shouldn’t be considered in admission decisions.
Even in California, one of the most progressive US states, this type of affirmative action was banned in 1996, and the ban was upheld in 2020 by a vote of 57% to 43%
One reason for this — and arguably the bigger issue — is the way that policies of affirmative action undercut the more widely-held belief in meritocracy.
Meritocracy, where opportunities and advancement are determined on ability — not inherent characteristics — has been a key engine of social mobility (and economic growth) for centuries. This focus on merit is inextricably linked with the principle of equality of opportunity; and in recent decades, both have focused on broadening university attendance as the best way to achieve the desired ends.
But meritocracy is under attack in two ways, one good and one bad, and race is relevant in both debates. These attacks centre around questions of equality of outcome and equality of opportunity.
Ultimately affirmative action serves the same role in pursuit of equality of outcome that meritocracy serves in pursuit of equality of opportunity: a key tool to be deployed.
As progressive thinking more broadly rejects equality of opportunity in favour of group outcomes then meritocracy too must be rejected, despite its clear benefits to individuals in terms of social mobility.
But as can be seen in the Harvard case, the rejection of merit often doesn’t lead to the supposed utopia. The boom gate was not lowered on privileged white students but on poorer Asian ones.
Indeed, Harvard could have achieved its desired racial balance without undermining meritocracy had it been willing to cede ground on its legacy admissions program or it’s niche sport scholarships, both of which overwhelmingly benefited white students, but the university refused to consider these options. Nor is it clear that affirmative action is better at promoting social mobility, or even that it is fairer.
As my colleague — and former university vice-chancellor — Emeritus Professor Steven Schwartz noted in his paper, In Defence of Meritocracy, critics of meritocracy rarely outline an alternative system that would produce better results in practice than merit. The main basis of the critique is that a system which creates winners and losers is unfair.
But every system has winners and losers. Many systems, including university admissions, amount to a zero sum game. Every place that is taken by one person denies that place to someone else.
It can’t even be assumed that the ‘beneficiaries’ of affirmative action are always thankful for the support. Indeed, black US Supreme Court Justice Thomas has been a vocal critic of affirmative action, arguing that it undermines the perceived merit of black students who make it to the top on their own steam.
This doesn’t mean that our current systems of meritocracy are perfect.
For example, admissions system based solely on objective marks may not be perfectly meritocratic, but not because average student marks differ across racial groups, the key metric for advocates for affirmative action.
It’s because disadvantaged students, may have marks slightly below those who have had access to far greater resources and support, but may have greater potential when given the same opportunities at University.
Thus deviating from solely considering objective marks doesn’t undermine the principle of meritocracy, but rather attempts to ensure that we are maximising merit.
It does not assume that everyone of a particular racial background, or from a particular disadvantaged area, faced the same obstacles. Affirmative action asserts that black and Latino students cannot compete with Asian students and need special help. There is no reason to assume this is correct.
Nor should such consideration become systemic: we can improve everyone’s opportunities such that marks are a better reflection of merit. For example, there is no reason why disadvantaged schools cannot teach effectively in accordance with evidence based practice.
The broader point raised by the Harvard decision is whether or not we still believe in equality of opportunity as a society — despite its flaws — or whether we are willing to jettison that principle in favour of allowing elites to chase their own vision of equality.
Simon Cowan is Research Director at the Centre for Independent Studies.