News and Comment

Should we beware the meritocracy?

Monday 25 October 2010

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Lord Browne’s review of higher education funding provoked much debate about whether young people from poorer backgrounds will now be deterred from going to university.

The president of Oxford University’s Student Union said the report heralded ‘a dark day for meritocracy’. Meritocracy is a word that has become popular with politicians on all sides in recent decades, but what exactly does it mean? It has been defined in different ways, but most would say it reflects the belief that anyone should be able to succeed based on their ability, not their background.

‘Ability’ can mean many things, however, and it is worth remembering that Michael Young, the Labour politician and social reformer who coined the word meritocracy half a century ago, originally meant it to have negative connotations. His 1958 book The Rise of the Meritocracy was intended as a satire on what society could become, not a vision of what it should strive to be.

Replacing one elite with another

Most would argue that success based on ability is fairer than success based on an accident of birth, but exactly how much fairer must depend on whose idea of ability we’re talking about. When invoked in support of meritocracy, it usually implies ability as displayed through educational attainment, e.g. that the opportunities for children with poorer parents to attend university should be equal to those of children with wealthier parents.

But is this focus too narrow? What does it mean for people whose strengths are not recognised by academic measurement? As Michael Young wrote, ‘education has a narrow band of values’ and ‘puts a seal of approval on a minority’ while relegating the majority to a lowlier position. It surely can’t be healthy for a society to dismiss so many of its citizens, whose talents we need just as much to make our lives function, as less worthy of higher social status and respect.

Winners and losers

One potential danger is that the nearer we get (or think we get) to a truly meritocratic society, the more license we give to the winners to look down on the losers – because in a society which assumes that all the ‘able’ people can make it, unfettered by background, those who remain at the bottom of the heap have no excuses, and must simply be ‘unable’. The fact that we are defining ability so narrowly too often escapes us.

As such, the very trend that has empowered some people from economically poorer backgrounds has disempowered their peers. A meritocracy throws into stark relief those who do not ‘succeed’ and thus, implies those people are less valuable to society. That people should no longer be shackled to their class roots has to be a good thing, but we must acknowledge that it has also encouraged us to de-value the contribution of those millions of people who remain in the socio-economic bracket into which they were born.

We see this in politics, which in the middle of the 20th Century, it could be argued, was giving people in the poorest communities a voice. Now, by contrast, and thanks in part to our faith in meritocracy, those voices have to a large extent disappeared. Politics may now be much better at being representative of women and minority groups, but people of ‘working class’ backgrounds tend only to be present if they have first been funnelled through higher education into a different social and economic sphere. Surely if we want to empower the poorest communities, we must give them the confidence that we’ll listen to their own voices, not only to those of their off-spring who ‘made it out’.

If Browne’s reforms to university funding do indeed deter the less well-off from experiencing higher education, then that will be a negative consequence that no one wants to see. But at the same time, we must always remember that university is not the only game in town, and that while a meritocracy as commonly defined might be a better way of ordering society than by privilege of birth, it can never be the only answer to improving our collective health, wealth and happiness – not, at least, until we see an expanded definition of what signifies merit in the first place.