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.

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7 Comments on “Is higher education (or should it be) a meritocracy?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    I would go even further and state that the Tax Code is actively constructed to perpetuate this so called merit. How is it reasonable that you can deduct your private school fees. It’s VAT you should be paying.

  2. iainmacl Says:

    I think much of the response is also because the issue touches on aspects of self-identity. Many academics regards themselves as having succeeded ‘on merit’ and see that if they have ascended to the professoriate then it is through their work, scholarship and contribution. Meanwhile, those who only get so far up the ladder will often complain that “it’s who you know” or some other self-satisfying rationale whilst sometimes nurturing the worry that maybe they aren;t ‘good enough’.

    This is the problem with the faux-meritocracy that we have in universities. There is insufficient regard for the fact that often it is chance, luck, randomness as to who gets full promotion or manages to find a postdoc position earlier in their career that keeps them in the system rather than having to leave. Once we pass a basic threshold of competency as academics, researchers, scholars then it can become difficult to decide who gets the professorship and who doesnt. Shortlisted candidates have all met the criteria on paper in terms of publications, etc, but is the final interview ‘meritocratic’?

    Indeed there was that recent paper that modelled promotions in organisations and concluded that random promotion amongst a group who all had achieved the basic levels of competency in the domain was more likely to be a successful strategy than other forms of selection!!

    I think you are right that the term ‘meritocracy’ is self-serving, ignores the genuine advantages so many people have had in life and its consequence is the reinforcement of existing inequality. Of course there will be exceptions, there always are, but in general we have a system that has been very good at reproducing itself over the generations.

  3. Anna Notaro Says:

    While I agree that ‘merit is not a golden calf we need to stand around and worship; [and] it is too difficult to pin down.’ I strongly disagree with the conclusions of this post ‘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.’

    Having listened to professor Brown’s lecture, I found odd that most of the comments on the site concentrated on meritocracy, rather than engaging with any other of the issues raised by privatization of higher education. Brown made a compelling case against privatization, particularly when she referred to the language (or more precisely ‘management speak’) used in universities, which these days, to quote from the lecture, are called to provide ‘efficient instructional delivery systems’ in order to generate ‘human capital’. In previous comments I mentioned the importance of language in creating and shaping the reality we live in…anyway language issues aside as far as meritocracy is concerned one of the contributors on the site persuasively argued:

    *If students are not judged based on their potential and performance as such, what possible ‘fair’ system do you posit as an alternative? I am not suggesting (nor do I believe) that everything in society and culture should be meritocratic. …The metrics by which merit is determined should always be open to debate, but ultimately it doesn’t make any sense not to reward students based on their success.*

    Considering talent and intellectual capacity over class, gender or other attributes, remains for me a key (albeit imperfect) higher education concept, and I’m perfectly comfortable with the fact that ‘merit’ is imbued with ethics (also under threat in some of the current proposed changes). This is not a matter of course of complacency or of refusing change per se, any intellectually sound individual working in education knows (or at least should)only too well how change is crucial to learning and development (not to speak of change as inherent in the human condition), only, in embracing change, we need to be careful not to give up consolidated ways of striving for fairness in the most ethical manner possible. Merit might be ‘difficult to pin down’, and yet that is exactly what our ‘business’ is about.

  4. See for more of Wendy Brown’s views, this time on online education.

  5. jfryar Says:

    Interesting post. In my own field of physics, it’s generally possible to group students into six main categories.

    First are the students who, for whatever reason, picked physics but have no real interest, no real ability, and end up leaving or failing.

    Second are the hard-working students who never demonstrated their ability at the Leaving Cert. but, with self-motivation and a desire to succeed, will come out of the course doing well after having to work hard at it.

    Third are the high-flyers who did well on the Leaving, like the nitty-gritty details of the mathematical derivations, and end up with top degrees. These people become theorists or head off to do multiple jobs in a variety of areas.

    Fourth are the ‘norms’ – they’ll come out of the degree with mediocre marks and go straight from degree into jobs.

    Fifth are the specialists – they have skills, say in experimental research, which aren’t really reflected in their grades and only become apparent in the final years of the course or during their postgrad.

    Sixth are the lazy – these are the very bright people never challenged by the education system who get their degrees with virutally no effort, and only finally shine once they’re in their postgrad years.

    Admittedly those are characterisations but I would argue that a ‘meritocracy’ often fails to reveal the true potential of people. A student at 18 might look like a waste of a college place, but three years into their PhD at 24 and one might have a completely different perspective. I worry that the Leaving Cert. is a one-size fits all meritocracy that is applied too soon. I also wonder how many people, the outliers in our education system who do not fit the prescribed mould, never made it and could have.

  6. Niall Says:

    Once inside the university … if there is to be no merit, is an F- grade to be considered no different than an A+? Or a first class honours degree the same as a pass? While coming from a privileged background clearly helps, many people who don’t still do well on ‘merit’, be that, ability, aptitude, interest, hard work or probably some combination of those. Random selection would see an equal mixture of the uninterested, unmotivated, enthusiastic and hard-working. Surely, we must strive to identify merit in a fair way

  7. Al Says:

    Am a hardcore meritician, but merit is conditional on the environment and the form of recognition and development of merit….

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