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Dividing our way to equality

Equality legislation has enabled unfairness and division

Last month, the University of Bristol hosted a free summer school offering Year 12 students a taste of university life. Participants stayed in student accommodation and attended sessions led by Bristol’s “world-leading academics”. Upon completion, they were guaranteed a contextual offer set two grades below the standard offer. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Parents, be warned: before you start prepping your teen for next year’s application process, there is a catch — no whites allowed.

Opportunities should be granted based on ability, not ethnicity

The requirements for applying to the Insight into Bristol summer school are peculiar, as they state that applicants must “identify as Black, Asian, or of mixed backgrounds featuring one or more of these groups”. The program is explicitly aimed at meeting the needs of “Students of Colour”. A sharp-elbowed parent with a child of the wrong colour (that is to say, white) might wonder: Can someone genuinely “identify as Black” without belonging to that racial background? Moreover, what specific needs do “students of colour” have that differ from those of white students? Shouldn’t our goal be equality for all, rather than emphasising perceived differences based on race?

The University of Bristol’s attempt to justify its discriminatory summer school scheme is deeply concerning. Whilst it claims to offer a broad range of activities for all students, the Insight into Bristol summer school is specifically designed for Asian and Black heritage students. Prioritising applicants based on their ethnic background is a clear example of race-based affirmative action, undermining the principles of fairness and equality. Offering alternative programs to non-Black and non-Asian students does not excuse the discriminatory nature of this scheme. It’s time for the university to re-evaluate its approach and provide equal opportunities for all students, regardless of their race.

By prioritising students based on their ethnic background, the university is engaging in blatant race-based affirmative action, favouring applicants solely on the grounds of their race rather than individual merit. Such an approach undermines the principles of a fair and equal society, where opportunities should be granted based on ability, not ethnicity. Despite the university’s efforts to create a sense of community and belonging for these specific groups, it is unjust to achieve this by discriminating against others.

This is not unique to Bristol. Multiple Russell Group universities host access schemes with priority given to individuals from Asian and black African backgrounds. The majority of these initiatives include a guaranteed offer with reduced grade requirements (as if grade inflation were not already bad enough). Rather than award places based on merit, these institutions are shamelessly engaging in race-based affirmative action.

White pupils are the least likely to pursue higher education

The issue of discrimination in the education system extends beyond race-based affirmative action. Oxbridge universities, in particular, have come under scrutiny for their admissions policies that seem biassed against students from private schools. Despite being intelligent, diligent and hardworking, candidates who attended private schools often find themselves at a disadvantage simply based on where their parents chose to send them to school. The systematic discrimination against these individuals is deeply concerning, and it raises questions about the fairness and meritocracy of the admissions process. Students should be evaluated based on their academic achievements, potential and abilities, not judged unfairly due to their educational background. Such discrimination not only perpetuates social divides but also denies deserving students the opportunities they have worked hard to earn. Addressing this issue is crucial to ensure that all students have an equal chance to pursue higher education based on their individual talents and efforts, rather than where they received their education.

Race-based access schemes are premised on the idea that ethnic minority groups are underrepresented in higher education. According to the government’s own data, it is white pupils who are falling behind. White pupils are the least likely amongst various ethnic groups to pursue higher education, with only 33.3 per cent continuing on to higher education, whilst 72.1 per cent of Chinese students go to university.

The 2010 Equality Act, introduced by Gordon Brown at the end of the last Labour government, was ostensibly about prohibiting discrimination based on protected characteristics in education and the workplace. Within this legislation was a targeted carveout, however. Sections 158 and 159 of the act permit institutions to offer “proportionate actions” to increase representation of a protected group. In practice, this takes the form of access schemes that privilege BAME candidates over their white counterparts. Regardless of the demographic makeup of university students, the likelihood of a prestigious university offering an access scheme targeted to white applicants, and white applicants alone, is approaching nil.

Outside of Downing Street, the number of Conservatives who believe that the party can win the upcoming election is vanishingly small. A party that was serious about making the most of its soon-to-be-lost majority would, as Gordon Brown did, take the last year and a half as an opportunity to pass legislation to change the political landscape for its time in opposition. Affirmative action is not a fait accompli, as the recent Supreme Court ruling in the United States showed. The political case for repealing the Equality Act for the sake of meritocracy and fairness is unanswerable. The only question to be resolved is whether Rishi Sunak has the moral courage to act.

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