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Equal Treatment before the Law, Mr Hancock! Social Engineering has no place in the Labour Market

The Government Equalities Office takes a strong view about positive discrimination: Positive discrimination is recruiting or promoting a person solely because they have a relevant protected characteristic. Setting quotas to recruit or promote a particular number of people with protected characteristics is also positive discrimination. Positive discrimination is unlawful in Britain.

And yet overt positive discrimination is being promoted by a minister in a Conservative government. No one would deny that there have been cases of negative discrimination, for instance failure to appoint or promote women or members of ethnic minorities, and that some means has to be found to address them. But the idea that asking people what sort of school they attended will be a motor of social mobility is nothing short of ludicrous, whether this takes place in the workplace or is a factor in deciding who should be admitted to a college at Cambridge.

The first point is the very simple one that attending a particular type of school is no indication of social background. Over 30 per cent of children in independent schools receive some financial aid towards fees, in some cases full scholarships. One wishes it were more than 30 per cent, and the High Master of St Paul’s has set a marvellous example by promising to move towards needs-blind admissions, involving the ‘squeezed middle’ as well as those earning below average incomes; but of course the money to pay for this has to be raised, and so it will not happen tomorrow.

Even so, there are those in Cambridge colleges who are determined to press ahead with social engineering. The Office of Fair Access requires evidence that an effort is being made to recruit students from across society. Cambridge has got it into its head that this means that at least two-thirds of its intake must come from state schools, without really differentiating between the elite state schools such as Queen Elizabeth’s in Barnet or Birmingham grammar schools and troubled comprehensives on the wrong side of the tracks. In one or two colleges, the study of Classics is deplored because most classicists come from independent schools, which is where Latin and Greek are most likely to be taught. In one college a surprising increase in the intake of geographers from almost zero reflects the fact that they tend to come from state schools, which of course helps one meet or surpass the 67 per cent target. This is not how to manage admissions to a top-class university fairly.

The second point is that positive discrimination leads in very dangerous directions. Let us imagine that one ethnic or religious group is represented out of proportion to its numbers in universities, in the medical profession, in the judiciary, in the world of arts and letters. Let us imagine that we are back in 1938, Mussolini’s Italy, and the government decides that legislation is needed to exclude some or all of these people from their positions. This really happened.

The third point that needs to be made again and again is that if discrimination on the grounds of race, gender, religion and so on is quite rightly to be deplored, so too must one deplore discrimination on the grounds of class. Class was used in the so-called German Democratic Republic to exclude highly qualified people from jobs and education. A truly democratic society is also an equal society, precisely in the sense that all are entitled to equal treatment when applying for jobs or places at university, whatever their inequalities of wealth, education or ability.


Professor David Abulafia FBA

David Abulafia is Professor of Mediterranean History at the University of Cambridge and Papthomas Professorial Fellow at Gonville and Caius College, having previously chaired the university's History Faculty. His publications include The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean (updated, 2014) and The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans (2019), which won the 2020 Wolfson Prize, while his Politeia publications include Triggering Article 50, Courts, Government and Parliament (2017) and History in the Making: The New Curriculum: Right or Wrong? (2013).

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