There’s a well-known political anecdote from the 90s when Jack Straw took control at the Home Office. He was looking at the statistics showing crime rising and rising and continuing to do so in the future. He wanted to know what could be done to stop it but when he asked his senior mandarins he was given the facile explanation that when the economic cycle was in a bust people were more likely to commit crime and in boom times, people had more things to steal.

We are in similar territory with the latest announcement from the Department for Education and the Cabinet Office that Universities will be subject to a whole new battery of measures including Access and Participation plans; they all “must do more to tackle ethnic disparity” apparently.

Certainly, there are differences between groups: in degree results and in drop out rates and the makeup of the academic workforce. But does this difference add up to a ‘burning injustice’ and do the numbers justify the conclusion that ethnicity is the factor ‘causing’ these differences?

The simple answer is no. And this may explain the rather ambivalent language from the Ministers in charge: talking only vaguely about a determination that: “nobody experiences a worse outcome solely on the grounds of their ethnicity”. And that: “that everyone who has the potential, no matter their background or where they are from can thrive at university.”

The language encourages a strong inference that the determining factor is indeed ethnicity and yet no argument has yet been made that justifies such a conclusion.  No amount of regression analysis, which I know is beloved by those who work at the Race Disparity Unit after having worked at the ONS, would be enough to show that the main reason for difference is a student’s ethnic profile. As my colleague Richard Norrie has pointed out “the chief problem is to infer the presence of discrimination from an unexplained difference.”

In the mid 20th century things were very different. Indeed, it’s worth pointing out that there’s a good news story buried away here and it shows how the statistics can hypnotise us into a pessimistic mode. Firstly entry to Uni amongst BME groups is at record levels. However, importantly, there are some ethnic groups who are clearly at the bottom end of the distribution of grades and the drop-out rates are a cause for concern. We need to balance that against the fact that some groups are clearly not struggling: for example, somebody should tell Ministers about British-born Chinese students who are flourishing.

The rejoinder might be that the measures designed to tackle ethnic disparity are what’s needed to level the playing field in the first place and continue the kind of reforms so vital to fairness, so what’s wrong?

Firstly, there’s the tacit inference that this is indeed a matter of discrimination. This leads us into the view that Britain is a racist country. A softer version of the argument runs that white British students have simply more ‘cultural capital’ or such that automatically puts them at an advantage. Such ‘hurdles’, when totted up mean that that we’ve got real problem in British society. This is, at root, the identity politics argument: any difference that leads to inequality of outcome is automatically unjust, even in competitive spheres.

But there’s a strange series of consequences in this line; firstly it forces one to accept the ‘tyranny of the average’: just because the average student in a particular ethnic group seems to have some different outcome it does not mean that this factor is the cause of that outcome. This is a false inference and basing policy on it would be a mistake. 

Secondly, it’s as a result of this kind of thinking that we get very close to perceiving racism everywhere:  the meta explanation par excellence of all problems, even in spaces where it is not so.

For example, what about getting to University in the first place? As the government acknowledges; the lowest enrolled group in universities by percentage is the category of white, British, low income men. Is it therefore a case of statistical over-reach to claim as Angela Rayner did recently that focussing on ‘ethnic agendas’ has been damaging to the prospects of young, white working class boys? It depends in turn on your views of the merits of the statistics but one must always be very cautious indeed in their use.

Furthermore, Mrs Rayner herself, as the Shadow Secretary of State for Education, rightly points out that this debate on University enrollment overshadows a rather larger one. She highlights the near hysteria that accompanies her admission that her son isn’t off to university. This clearly is not a good thing. We need a society where the best and the brightest aren’t necessarily synonymous and where the manual worker, nurse, care worker or tradesperson isn’t looked down on.

Identity politics and identity policy

The battery of measures: including a power of ‘challenge’ in Access and Participation plans, may lead to further impositions down the road. All this seems to capture a sense of drifting towards positive discrimination. However, if Universities want to avoid the litigation Harvard recently experienced from its Asian applicants, we must not reproduce the distortions of the US admissions culture.

The American experience here is telling and critics have got plenty of ammo: we may soon be in a world where the degrees of our black students are perceived as being worth less than their peers or where white students who are struggling in our universities can’t access the same support as their Bangladeshi counterparts.

Especially as macro interventions are much less preferable to personal, individual programmes for changing behaviour. Think what you like about Professor Jordan Peterson but his future authoring programme, based on years of clinical practice, has had truly amazing results on minority students’ drop out rates at the Rotterdam School of Management.

The point is that looking for statistics to confirm our overall worldview whilst removing those nuances that don’t fit is a fool’s errand. That’s when “placing greater demands on universities to close the attainment gaps between ethnic minority students and others” seem misguided.

This again is where the myths of single causation and bad inferences from preconceived world views leads to some highly dubious policy making. A clarion call for government action against burning injustices might be better assented to if there was stronger evidence for the actual injustices that are predicated to lie behind any differences. 

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