Thursday, 22 May 2008

Comment on the News

I saw this, and thought I ought to at least mention it.

'Bruce Charlton, reader in evolutionary psychiatry at Newcastle University, suggested that the low numbers of working-class students at elite universities was the "natural outcome" of IQ differences between classes.
In a paper shown to the Times Higher Education magazine, Dr Charlton questioned the Government's drive to get more students from poor backgrounds into top universities like Oxford and Cambridge.
He said: "The UK Government has spent a great deal of time and effort in asserting that universities, especially Oxford and Cambridge, are unfairly excluding people from low social class backgrounds and privileging those from higher social classes.
"Yet in all this debate a simple and vital fact has been missed: higher social classes have a significantly higher average IQ than lower social classes."
The fact that so few students from poor families get into Oxbridge is not down to "prejudice" but "meritocracy", he said.'

Now, it could be that Dr Charlton is making a well founded observation. After all, I'd hate to think that he'd make a comment like this without some meaningful statistical back up. I'm not in a position to comment on the science involved, and don't think that findings should be rejected out of hand just because we don't like them. On another level, I would actually like to agree with some of the sentiments: access to university should be based on merit. The British Government's drive to increase participation to 50% has led to rises in drop out rates in universities, and the continued devaluation of the degree as a measure of academic excellence.

That said, I can see several problems here. Firstly, the issue over encouraging working class Oxbridge applications is not about accepting thickies (when in doubt, revert to schoolboy vocab) Practically everyone who applies is due some very good results on their A-levels, but working class students due good results are less likely to apply there, and apparently less likely to be accepted if they do.

Secondly, am I the anomaly in his calculations? My father spent years as a coal miner. My brother is a tree surgeon. I, on the other hand, did rather better at university than students around me from better backgrounds. Not at Oxford or Cambridge, but at one of England's three great universities (apologies for the Blackadder Goes Forth reference, but it is Hull's main claim to fame). One case isn't a disproof, but it makes the point. There is a danger in careless presentation of such evidence of branding everyone who isn't practically royalty as some sort of idiot.

Thirdly, and lastly (I promise) does the difference Dr Charlton points out perhaps say more about the continued flaws of IQ tests than about the people being tested? They try to measure intelligence (or in more modern conceptions, intelligences) but still seem to be measuring education more often than not.


Heather said...

number 3 seems a very definite possibility. This whole thing smacks of sensationalism - was Dr. Carlton up for tenure???

stu said...

I have no idea. It sounds like the sort of thing where someone has gotten so wrapped up in their field that they can't see the consequences of reporting their findings without a better explanation.