Is higher education (or should it be) a meritocracy?
Over recent months, whenever I have criticised the current final school examinations and have suggested a lottery as an alternative (most recently here), I have invariably received strong protests in the mail suggesting that a lottery is totally unfair because it doesn’t recognise and reward merit. For me, this raises some interesting questions. If the writers believe that school exams (A-levels, Irish Leaving Certificate, Scottish Highers) recognise merit, then they must be suggesting that the effective application of wealth in secondary education is meritorious.
So what exactly do we think ‘merit’ means in the higher education context? Recently the website Sociological Images published a lecture by Berkeley Professor of Political Science Wendy Brown on the ‘Consequences of Privatizing Higher Education’. What was even more interesting though was the discussion on the site that her contribution provoked on the question of whether any particular system of higher education represents a meritocracy. Here’s what one contributor had to say:
‘We have quotas, diversity scholarships, Women in Engineering departments, and special programs for those who come from low economic background. You may think that these are all good things (and I don’t even mean to argue that they are not, on balance, good), but they are *not* meritocratic.’
So what, then, is a meritocracy? Is it where we close our eyes to background, income, ethnicity, race, gender, class, and take everyone’s journey through life and work at face value only? Do we assume that merit requires that someone having sat an examination in the Central African Republic be evaluated exactly the same way as the student at Harvard University? Do we assert that scholarships destroy concepts of merit because they provide access at least in part on the basis of considerations other than examinations and performance metrics? This discussion becomes even more loaded when we assume (as, I believe, many do) that ‘merit’ is imbued with ethics.
In reality, ‘merit’ is not a golden calf we need to stand around and worship; it is too difficult to pin down. We need to understand that higher education is in part about lifting social expectations, overcoming discrimination and ending deprivation. We need also to understand that it requires intellectual integrity, scholarship and external engagement. I can find almost no meaningful use for ‘merit’ as a higher education concept; in fact its main impact seems to be to breed complacency and to reinforce resistance to change. It may in the end not be a very useful concept for us today.