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Meritocracy and diversity: a delicate balance

By Steven Schwartz - posted Monday, 10 July 2023

The United States Supreme Court’s verdict in favour of Students for Fair Admissions has triggered a seismic shift in the landscape of higher education.

The crux of the students’ case centred on the contentious practice of using race as a factor in university admissions. Asian students argued that they were being discriminated against — denied entry to highly-coveted universities — solely because of their ethnic background. At the same time, the universities were giving admission preferences to other students, mainly black but also Hispanic.

By siding with the Asian students, the Supreme Court has made it clear that ethnicity and race (mere accidents of birth) should not determine one’s opportunities. The capability, drive, and character of applicants are what counts, not the language they speak, the religion they follow or the colour of their skin. Not surprisingly, the ruling whipped up a storm of controversy. The same thing happened some years ago when I led a review of university admissions in England. My review also recommended that every applicant be treated as an individual, not a representative of a racial, ethnic, or other group. Then, as now, critics feared that ignoring race would make it difficult to extend higher education to disadvantaged students.


In both cases, the critics missed the point. Giving every applicant an equal opportunity to compete for admission is not a setback but a leap forward in the pursuit of an equitable society. It reaffirms the virtue of meritocracy and the core principle of equality under the law — a common law value also shared by Australia and outlined in my new paper, In Defence of Meritocracy.

The critics of the Court are misguided because they conflate the pursuit of a diverse student body with fair equality of opportunity. They are not the same thing. Diversity is a worthy goal. University students do not just absorb facts from lecturers; they also learn from other students.  A multicultural student body enriches higher education by exposing students to different cultures and customs. It also teaches them the value of acceptance, tolerance, and inclusion. These lessons are just as crucial to the health of our society as anything undergraduates learn in the lecture theatre.

The Supreme Court agrees. Its decision does not mean the end of campus diversity. Universities can still use outreach programs, scholarships, mentors, and support services to attract, retain, and encourage students from various backgrounds. They can also focus on recruiting economically deprived students, whose potential for higher education is often underestimated.  What universities cannot do is discriminate on the basis of racial or ethnic identity.

The court ruling provides a significant opportunity for reflection in other countries. It invites us to reconsider whether our social policies foster fairness and equal opportunity. For example, all Australian universities have special entry programs for members of underrepresented groups, particularly indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. These programs have not been controversial because, unlike what happened to Asian students in America, our universities have not excluded students from one group to make room for students from another.  Instead, they have expanded to accommodate more applicants. However, there are some courses, such as medicine, where expansion is restricted, and great care is required to ensure that entry criteria do not unfairly favour one social group over another.

We must also look closely at everyday student life. As someone who grew up in the USA during the segregation era, I cringe when I hear that universities are developing student housing reserved for a particular race. The benefit of campus diversity is its ability to teach students how to get on together in a multiracial society. Creating racial enclaves negates this opportunity. It is the exact opposite of what universities should be doing. Integration, not segregation, should be their goal.

Critics of my earlier report and the recent Supreme Court decision claim that discrimination in favour of some groups is a remedial measure for historical injustices. In Australia, proponents have made similar arguments in favour of a proposed Indigenous “Voice” to Parliament. Although the details remain opaque, the primary intention of the Voice proposal is to provide recognition, respect, and representation for historically marginalised indigenous people.


These are certainly noble goals, but we must ensure that the Voice serves to provide fair equality of opportunity to all marginalised people and does not morph into an arena for race-based preferences.  The challenge lies in striking a delicate balance between the principles of meritocracy and restorative justice. Horace Mann, the great abolitionist who fought against the slave trade, called education the great equaliser; it would be a tragic irony to condone the unequal treatment of different groups to achieve it.

In his stirring speech on the steps of Washington’s Lincoln Memorial in 1963, Rev Martin Luther King Jr presented a vision of equality that embodied the egalitarian ideal. He implored his fellow citizens not to judge people by the colour of their skin but by the contents of their character. King believed that justice isn’t about engineering certain preferred outcomes but ensuring fair equality of opportunities.  

It is moral and right to fight against racial biases and work towards a truly egalitarian society. Still, for the good of our country, of all countries, we must avoid the temptation to institutionalise identity-based preferences in universities, employment, and government. Our goal should be a society in which individuals are not mere representatives of racial or ethnic groups but unique, capable, and contributing individuals.


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This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review and republished on Steven Schwartz.

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About the Author

Emeritus Professor Steven Schwartz AM is the former vice-chancellor of Macquarie University (Sydney), Murdoch University (Perth), and Brunel University (London).

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