Should the top UK universities have a black quota?

By Limpeh Is Foreign Talent

My friends on social media had a big argument about this - a black MP David Lammy accused Oxford of 'social apartheid' this week when it was revealed that one in three colleges at Oxford University had no black students. Of course, my very left wing friends went on the rampage on social media, screaming racism and elitism - a friend of mine got really upset about it as her son applied to Oxford and got rejected, so now she's playing the race card. I wasn't quite sure if I wanted to join in that conversation as I didn't want to be accused to elitism myself but I am of an ethnic minority, I am an immigrant, I'm gay, I'm autistic, I'm from a working class family and I too got rejected from Oxford too back in the 1990s despite my excellent results, before turning to my second choice UCL who promptly gave me a scholarship (but somehow despite all that, I'm just not good enough for Oxford). Thus this is an emotional topic even for me, so I sat down with my friend "Marc" (not his real name) who works at top university in the UK - Marc has agreed to this chat on the basis that I reveal neither his real name nor his employers, in order for him to be totally honest with me.

Why are there so few black people in Oxbridge?

Limpeh: What is your response to the article in the Guardian and Lammy's accusation of 'social apartheid'?

Marc: I don't agree with Lammy. He is making the allegation based on the fact that there are no black students in one out of three Oxford colleges. You see, I've done loads of statistics over the years, both qualitative and quantitative analysis and I can see major flaws in the way Lammy had interpreted the data. He's black, he has an agenda to fight for the rights of the blacks to get into elite colleges. He's also using this issue just to get attention, to be in the headlines.

Limpeh: But surely there is a story here, or at least something worth looking at. If I may quote the article, "the data shows that 10 out of 32 Oxford colleges did not award a place to a black British pupil with A-levels in 2015, the first time the university has released such figures since 2010. Oriel College only offered one place to a black British A-level student in six years. Similar data released by Cambridge revealed that six colleges there failed to admit any black British A-level students in the same year." The percentage of black people in the UK stands at about 3% and if you were to include those who are mixed, that rises to about 4%. I grant you that's not a particularly high figure, but zero? Not a single black student in those colleges? How did that happen? Even I would call that a statistical anomaly. One would expect there to be at least about 1 to 5% of the intake to be black, especially if you can include international students. But none? You can see why people are calling it a conspiracy or even racism. I'm not even taking sides here, it is a statistical anomaly.

People on both sides of the argument are angry over this article.

Marc: I have a feeling a lot of people simply read the headline of that misleading Guardian article and jumped to the conclusions that they wanted to jump to. u<>Many people are just waiting for any opportunity to hate the elite institutions as represented by Oxbridge thus they ignored the response from the universities where they clearly stated that they had made great efforts to target students from more deprived socio-economic backgrounds, those who wouldn't normally even consider going to university, let alone Oxbridge. The impression that Lammy is trying to give those with very short attention spans is that there are a group of nasty white racist old men in these colleges in top hats deliberately discriminating against black people - that couldn't be further from the truth! But hey, in the age of social media, people are searching for confirmation bias when surfing the internet. There is no smoking gun to justify Lammy's accusation - he saw some statistics and jumped to his own conclusions without any real evidence. You'll like to think that an MP would be more careful before making such a serious allegation, but given the way we have seen Trump lie his way through his campaign and presidency and the crap we had to deal with in Brexit from Boris Johnson, well, it is sad that politicians have such a cavalier attitude towards making ridiculous accusations. This is why you shouldn't always trust politicians.

Limpeh: Okay, I've got a question. 15.9% of Oxford students are of ethnic minorities - so we're talking about various kinds of Asians like Indians, Arabs, Chinese, Koreans, Persians etc but not blacks. So clearly it is not some racist effort to keep Oxford white - they clearly have no problems with Asian students, so how can it be that so many Asians are able to find a place at Oxford whilst black students can't? I remember how in Apartheid South Africa, certain Asian nationalities like the Japanese and the Taiwanese were given 'honorary white status' and people from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan then were treated like white people under the Apartheid regime. Is this a case of Asians somehow being afforded "honorary white status" in this system or is there more to it? People are so afraid to talk about this as it is about race and racism.

Marc: No, of course not. The Asian students who have earned their places there did so through hard work and got those places fair and square. The blacks in South Africa were discriminated against by the system and treated as second class citizens but the black applicants and students in the Oxbridge system are treated exactly the same as everyone else. The number of places in these colleges are very limited and competition for these places are very intense - the admissions department take great care in making sure that the places are given to the best, most deserving students rather than allocating places according to some kind of quota system whereby you have to give a set number of places to students of a certain skin colour or ethnicity. If you want the system to be truly colour blind, then you have to allow meritocracy to do its job rather than interfere by crying foul if there are no black students as a result of the system. I cannot make this any clearer: there is no concerted campaign to discriminate against black students who apply to Oxbridge. The statistics reflect what is going on in our society today! You can't put the onus on top universities to fix the problem, that's the government's job. Lammy should be holding the government accountable, rather than attacking us.

How do you earn yourself a place at Oxbridge then?

Limpeh: This is the argument that people have presented to me: they said that if a working class black student from a state school in a very deprived neighbourhood applies with three Bs, then the admissions department should look at the three Bs and say, "okay, if this black student had been given the resources that a rich white family had such as private tuition, smaller class sizes in a quality private school and a much more comfortable home environment, then those three Bs would become three As and should be treated as such." What do you think about extending some leeway or leniency, some mercy, to those who have come from a deprived background or have faced difficult family circumstances?

Marc: What makes you think we don't already do that? The admissions department do look at every case very carefully but the only difference is that we're not racist: we're colour blind and a white student with blonde hair and blue eyes from a deprived background is going to need as much help and leeway as a black student from an equally deprived background. We're not going to say, Believe it or not, we ignore skin colour in this process and we focus on social background... social class and look at a range of factors rather than just focus on skin colour. Lammy is doing us a huge disservice by ignoring the amount of efforts that the universities have put into helping such students - he is the MP for Tottenham - that's a very deprived area in London. Surely he has to represent the poorer, working class white people in his parliamentary constituency, rather than just speak on behalf of black people. Even if we were to impose a quota system to ensure that no university is without black students, what if a top university somehow meets its 'quota' of black students with black students whose parents are filthy rich? It is not as if there are no rich black people in the UK and by the same token, it is not as if there are no poor white people here either! That's why any kind of programme to help students from deprived backgrounds need to be colour blind to ensure that we help the right students. Should Obama's daughters benefit from affirmative action just because of their skin colour or should any such scheme exclude people like that because of their socio-economic status?

Limpeh: This is already done in America in the name of affirmative action: we don't have such a system in the UK as of yet. Do you think we should do what America has done to improve the status quo or has it been counter-productive?

Marc: Well, it is not a complete solution - say you set aside 3% of places for black students and then the black students may think, "I can get a place in Oxford as long as I beat the other black students", then you get a situation whereby the moment a black student walks into a lecture hall, the others are going to think that s/he is there only because of this quota and that's what has happened in America. Then when a black student graduates from a top university and applies for a job, the gatekeepers are going to think, "well, he only got there because of this quota thing, he didn't earn a place there like the others". You then create a two tier system of second class graduates from the same university. Part of the reason why people want to hire Oxbridge graduates is because they only accept the very best - now what is that going to do to the reputation of Oxbridge if they are forced to put aside a certain number of places to fulfill a diversity quota? Imagine if you're a black student with straight As, you worked hard to earn your place in Oxford, but when you graduate, people are going to think, "oh you're just another black student who got his Oxford degree because of this quota."

Limpeh: You talked about this being incomplete - where else in the education system do changes need to be made, if we are talking about coming up with a far more complete solution that will address the problem in the first place, that of very few black students making it to top universities? Not all my readers are familiar with the UK education system.

Marc: Well, more resources need to be dedicated to making sure that students as early as primary school get the help they need to achieve their maximum potential - of course not everyone is Oxbridge material, but if someone has what it takes but somehow doesn't achieve their full potential because of their socio-economic circumstances, then that's when the system has to step in and help them. But why are we just focusing on the tiny number of exceptionally brilliant students who let's face it, even if they don't make it to Oxbridge, they will end up in a university that's very good as well? Alex you got rejected by Oxford and ended up in UCL, your second choice - was your life ruined as a result? Of course not. Much more can be done to help all students achieve their maximum potential, if it means helping them overcome difficult circumstances and that begins from a young age. You can't have a system that favours the rich and then expect the universities to make an exception in their admissions criteria: you need to fix the whole system that created this inequality in the first place. There are no easy fixes for such a complex problem that has been around for centuries.

Marc wants more money invested in education for state schools.

Limpeh: I noticed you didn't mention the word 'black' once in that. Is that the elephant in the room? After all, if you were to look at the data from the census, black people perform very poorly in every aspect from academic achievement to property ownership to income to participation in skilled jobs - you name it, every aspect single aspect they are at or near the bottom of the list. People don't like to point this out as they are afraid of being called racist, but if no one is willing to even acknowledge the elephant in the room, then how are we going to even begin to tackle the issue of getting more black students into top universities then if this is just one aspect of the bigger picture of black people in the UK today?

Marc: Perhaps it is the elephant in the room but what Lammy did is wrong - he reminds me of my sister.

Limpeh: Go on. What did your sister do?

Marc: My sister's 18th birthday coincided with her A levels, so she was originally going to have a party but then thought, no I need to focus on my exams. What she didn't know was that my parents and I thought it would be nice for her to at least have a few hours' break and we would throw her a surprise party. We planned it for weeks - we tried to get everything right: the cake, the gifts, inviting her friends, the entertainment. The planning was a lot of hard work and my parents took the day off work just to be at home when my sister came home from school on her birthday. But when we surprised her, somehow my sister reacted very badly. I think she was stressed out from the exams and she started crying - the cake was wrong, we haven't invited the right friends, why didn't we invite this person and why did we invite this other person, why didn't we ask her what she wanted. Okay, I admit we didn't give her the perfect 18th birthday party because it was a surprise party, but she didn't once acknowledge just how much effort my parents and I put into planning her birthday party. She threw the cake across the room and accused us of trying to ruin her birthday. She screamed at my parents, saying that it was just as well she had turned 18 as she would be at university the next year and celebrating her next birthday without us around. My mother cried, my father was so angry and upset with her, it was just awful.

Limpeh: Oh dear. I've included a Youtube video, just to provoke a reaction from my readers about how we would feel when a dumb kid throws a tantrum like that. You just wanna slap some sense into that awful kid for behaving like that.

Marc: Did we try to ruin her birthday? Quite the opposite. We worked so hard to try to get things right, but they didn't turn out perfect. That's the bottom line - the universities did make a valiant effort with their outreach programmes to try to engage students from the working class, from state schools, from certain socio-economic backgrounds that don't normally go to university. And like my sister's 18th birthday party, no we didn't quite deliver the results we hoped for. But for Lammy to then turn around and have the bloody cheek, the audacity of accusing us of 'social apartheid' after we have worked so freaking hard to do everything he has asked us to do? That's utter bullshit and hypocrisy. He is just looking to score a few quick brownie points as a politician - what he should be doing is engaging us to see how he can help, rather than get on his moral high horse and condemn us. He's a total hypocrite. And if he thinks he can get away with it just because he's black, then I can tell you there are a lot of black people who don't agree with him. He's doing exactly what my sister did to me and my parents on her 18th birthday and I think that his kind of behaviour is utterly disgraceful.

Limpeh: I see what you mean. By turning against the universities and accusing you guys of being nasty racists, he should have played nice - he could have acknowledged the amount of outreach work that you guys have done, okay maybe the results weren't ideal, maybe you didn't quite achieve everything you set out to do. That's the same as your sister's party: you guys made a genuine effort and she threw it in your faces in a massive tantrum, making hideous accusations. Your sister lashed out because well, I suppose she was very immature or very stressed - probably both. I don't even want to start to justify Lammy's very poor choices - it does seem that the liberal left is buying his argument though I can see that he's far more interested in pandering to his supporters than working with you guys to genuinely make changes in the system for the better of black students. That makes him really quite a selfish politician because he should put aside his own ego and be far more engaging - but of course, the left are are blinded by their hatred of any institution associated with capitalism and elitism. May I state for the record that you're of an ethnic minority too Marc?

Lammy is playing the lame blame game.

Marc: Yes, but please, let's not elaborate on that. I'm not white, let's leave it at that.

Limpeh: Allow me to go back to the point you were making earlier, so you say it is unfair to make the universities somehow fix the situation that has been created in the system by bending the rules of the admission criteria. For my readers who are not in the UK, could you kindly elaborate on what some of these problems are in the first place.

Marc: In the UK, you have state schools which are funded by the government and they provide education free of charge to the students; rich families tend to send their kids to private schools, where they can pay a lot of fees but in exchange they get a much better quality of education: everything from much smaller class sizes, better facilities, extra lessons for the students who need help, more interesting activities like overseas trips. The private schools have more money to hire better teachers as well. So for example, if you're doing French at a private school, you'll easily get a week or two in France for that total immersion experience. But if you're doing it at a London state school, you'll be lucky to get an excursion to the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras just to be able to see some signs in French. Students in private schools are surrounded by other students who are determined and ambitious whilst those in state schools, well, all I can say is that you hope your child has decent friends who don't drag them down if you send them to a state school. The system favours the rich, who can afford to buy their children a better quality of education. If you're too poor to send your child to an elite private school, then you're rolling the dice with the state school system. Hope for the best - cross your fingers.

Now the only way for the system to be fixed is to make sure that students at state schools get as good a quality of education as those at the private schools, but that would come at such a huge price tag that we can never afford as a country. Perhaps some otheu>r country like Japan, Switzerland or Norway can afford to pour that kind of money into their education system but we don't - the government is in debt, we're broke and let's face it: inequality has always been endemic in the British system. Just take a look at our history: going back several centuries, the royalty and the aristocrats lived the high life whilst the peasants were lucky to make it to their 30th birthdays. After the industrial revolution, the peasants merely ended up in the factories working long hours whilst the elite prospered off the back of their labour. Then in this modern age, the working classes are stuck in grim council estates like Grenfell Towers, locked out of a university system which favours the students who have come through the expensive private schools and you want to blame the universities for this? I can't decide if Lammy is really that stupid to think that we are to be blamed, or if we are just a political football for him to kick and score an easy goal. For centuries, the whole British social class system is designed to keep the poor poor and the rich rich and the universities haven't created this system. You can't pour enough money into the education system to fix it, simply getting Oxford to admit more black students isn't going to fix this huge problem.

Limpeh: Personally, I think that people are way too focused on the tip of the iceberg - there are so many universities in the UK and plenty more other further education schemes. Why is Lammy focusing on just Oxbridge in this case? How about looking at the wider picture, talking about black students in further education in general? Further education is more than just getting a degree from Oxford or Cambridge and even if he does somehow pressure Oxbridge into taking in a few more black students just for them to say, "there, we have five black students in this college now, there we've responded now leave us alone." Great. So that's a handful of students he can help - so that's an easy goal to achieve, what about the thousands of other working class young black students who have had a much rougher deal with the British education system then? What is he doing to help them? What is he offering them - a dream that they can make it to Oxford one day because he has somehow opened up the door for them? You can see why I am cynical about Lammy.

Poor people are the real 2nd class citizens in the UK.

Marc: What is happening is that the government has little desire to change the education system much because there is no money to do anything useful and we'e broke as a nation - oh and Brexit doesn't help either. So asking the admission departments to bend the rules for students from state schools and/or poor families is an easy fix - but one should ask the question, why are these students getting such a shitty education in the first place? Why has the state school system let them down thus? Who is going to be held responsible for those failings? But Alex, I have a question for you if I may.

Limpeh: Okay. Go on...

Marc: You've played the role of a gatekeeper before several times in your career. I'd like to know how you'd react if you received an application from a black American student with a degree from a top US university but you don't know if this applicant has benefited from affirmative action and got his place at that university through the quota system.

Limpeh: Well. That's not happened before, I've not been in that situation before so this is a hypothetical question.

Marc: Say it is, but I just want to know how you would feel about this candidate. And say you have another black candidate from a top British university, this time, you know that British university does not practice this kind of affirmative action quota system. Which candidate are you more likely to hire then? How would this impact on your decision then?

Limpeh: Oh man, you're turning the spotlight on me. Okay, I can't speak on behalf of all gatekeepers as every gatekeeper will have their own methods and every company will have their own policies when it comes to hiring. But from my perspective, I don't believe in giving someone a job just because I feel sorry for them - that probably makes me sound like a monster but the truth is my head will be on the chopping block if I made a very poor decision that costed the company a lot of money. Sure if you present me with a black candidate from a very deprived social background with every odd set against him from the start vs a white candidate from a rich family - am I going to cut the former some slack when if he had a somewhat inferior CV, is that what you're asking me? Say if the former went to a university in the middle of the league table and the latter went to Oxford, would I treat the two on an equal basis, based on the argument that if they both were given the same resources, the same quality of education, then they would both have the same results.

Marc: Would you do that?

Limpeh: I would give both candidates a chance to prove themselves through the interview process but don't get me wrong, I need to see signs of brilliance from both candidates. I wouldn't assume that just because someone has been to Oxford that means that they are definitely going to be more capable - they may just be exam smart but no company is going to hire someone just to study and take exams all the time, we need to get real work done, we expect the candidate to add value, generate revenue for the company. If the Oxford graduate has had a very pampered life growing up with rich parents and the other guy had more worldly experience in terms of holding down part time jobs to put himself through college, then those differences will come out through the tests I subject them to and through the interview process. This is hardly unique as many big companies these days more or less put degrees aside and use their own methods such as psychometric tests to evaluate credible candidates. But let's be very realistic about this: it is not like, oh we're going to treat everyone the same and allow everyone to compete on an equal footing. In such a situation, you need to make it to a shortlist in the first instance to even get tested by me and I'm not necessarily looking for a good degree there, rather I am looking for signs of brilliance and there is more than one way to prove yourself to be truly exceptional.

However, if we get down to two candidates, one is your traditional white upper-middle class Oxford graduate and the other is a black working class guy who has somehow managed to triumph against the odds and prove himself, which candidate would I choose if they have both performed as well as each other? I would be more than likely to go with the Oxford graduate for no better reason than I am covering my back. I chose the Oxford graduate and things went wrong, the management would be far more forgiving and accept that with a shrug of the shoulders, "oh well, shame it didn't work out." But if I picked the somewhat unconventional candidate and gave him a chance, then things went wrong, I would be berated for having taken such risks. It takes a lot of time and money to run a recruitment process and once we've picked the right candidates, we spent even more time and money training them up and we keep on investing in them until the day they are able to generate revenue for the company. If we invest this much time and money in them and then we find out six months down the line they are not right for the job, then the gatekeeper is going to be hung out to dry I swear. Gatekeepers like me are just not in the position to 'help' candidates from more deprived backgrounds - we are often forced to go with the more conventional choice. We're not in the business of playing god, we're desperately trying to do a good job and avoid mistakes. So no, we've not perfect, we're trying our best and thus we can be quite risk averse.

Personally, I had a difficult start to life. I am autistic - autism runs in my family, my parents are severely, like off-the-scale autistic. We were working class, we weren't rich. Like we weren't starving but we were not wealthy either. I had a terrible time at school even though I was doing well academically and good at sports: my autism prevented me from making friends and I was subjected to a lot of bullying in my younger days. Without supportive parents, well, it was hard. When I was younger, I didn't even want to talk about how tough my childhood was because I felt very ashamed of myself, I didn't want people to know. I was afraid that people would look down on me if they knew - but thankfully I was blessed with enough intelligence to somehow figure my way through that mess on my own with absolutely zero help from my autistic parents. More to the point, I was also not naive, I knew that nobody was going to give me a job because they felt sorry for me. People were only going to give me a job if I could prove that I could help make them money and that was the bottom line. There are plenty of worthy charities out there you can donate your money to if you want to do some good in the world, but you do not give someone a job just because you feel sorry for them. If I didn't expect charity from others in this aspect, I am not prepared to give it either as a gatekeeper. But if I see that someone has come from a difficult background and has still managed to do well in their studies, then of course I'd have a lot more respect for that person.

It is not up to me to help you overcome the odds in your life.

Marc: I feel strongly that it is so wrong for the government to allow those from more deprived socio-economic backgrounds to be neglected for much of their childhood and teenage years and then suddenly turn around and accuse top universities of not admitting enough black or working class students; or big companies for not hiring enough black or working class applicants to the top positions. Why do you think working class or black students are underrepresented in top universities? Why don't we come across more working class or black people in certain professional circles? That is because they have had such a difficult start to life with the odds set against them that by the time they are 18, they find it very hard to triumph against those odds and get into a top university - fix the situation with the first 18 years of their lives, invest more heavily in primary and secondary education rather than attack the universities. We did not create this problem in the first place. It is not the fault of top companies for wishing to hire applicants from good universities. The government needs to own up and take responsibility for the situation for they are the ones who can fix it and getting top universities to allocate more places to black students isn't going to change the problem in the first place. The fact that there are so few black students in Oxbridge isn't a problem but it is merely a symptom of a much bigger problem.

Limpeh: I feel that there is something the education system can learn from what we're doing in the recruitment process.

Marc: Finally, a solution, I wanna hear this.

Limpeh: Well, it's nothing new! You know, many companies have been doing this for years. We test problem solving skills in our psychometric tests: so for example, the candidate is presented with a problematic situation pertaining to the job and we observe how the candidate comes up with a solution to this situation. It is one of those tests where there are no "right" or "model" answers that you can memorize in a textbook - quite simply, the candidate has to demonstrate that he can understand the complex problem, analyze it and then come up with a range of options that could be the right solution - then the candidate has to choose one solution and justify why he feels that is the best solution. This is not that dissimilar to say some of the tasks that you see on the programme the Apprentice - it should be all based on the real business world rather than memorizing answers from a textbook or applying formulas in a very sterile exam environment.

Marc: Can you elaborate and give me an example on how this can be applied at A levels?

Limpeh: The current system needs updating. We need to remove the need to memorize formulas and eliminate as much rote learning from the exam situation as possible - rich students would have a distinct advantage because they would have good teachers and extra help to coach them through the very standard exam structures, so they are able to walk into that exam hall a lot more prepared. The current system isn't working because they are trying to cram way too much into an A level syllabus in most subjects and so the whole exam is usually geared towards testing if the student has memorized all the facts, figures and formulas - I believe the syllabus can be scaled back in terms of the content and students should be allowed to do less subjects but demonstrate a more profound understanding of what they have learnt.

Marc: You're not suggesting that we dumb down the syllabus as we?!

Limpeh: Not at all. But I want you to think about the subjects you did in school all those years ago Marc and think about how much of that knowledge you actually need as an adult. I daresay you've forgotten the vast majority of the formulas, facts and figures you've had to memorize for the many exams you've taken because they are just not relevant at all to your job today, but what you do take away is the analytical and problem solving skills you've had to demonstrate in understanding complex subjects. What is the true purpose of education then? So if we simply acknowledge that this is really the most important skill that students will take away from their time at school, then let's focus on it rather than cram them with useless information that they'll forget eventually. This way, you are leveling the playing field a lot more because it is a lot harder to prepare for this kind of exams where you have to think on your feet and come up with something on the spot, much like what I do at work on a daily basis - rather than simply regurgitate something you have memorized.

Marc: Wow. That's quite a radical shake up you are proposing.

Limpeh: Radical shake ups can lead to great results. When coach Bela Karolyi was putting together a new gymnastics team in Romania in the 1970s, he didn't want to see gymnasts who could already perform gymnastics skills. No, instead he tested potential students on the very basics like the ability to run, their innate flexibility and core strength - he was trying to find kids with natural talent rather then say, "oh let's see how good your back flip is" because let's face it, most people can learn a back flip but you want the kid who can learn it in 15 minutes, not the one who took a year or more to learn it. Through this method, Karolyi found this young girl called Nadia Comaneci and she became Olympic gold medalist at the age of 14 at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. What I am saying is that A levels should be far more like IQ tests and universities like Oxford will want to get the students with the unfair advantage of the crazy high IQ, rather than a mediocre kid who has simply been bludgeoned through the exam system and trained to perform well in the exams. Give a university a kid with a high enough IQ and they can teach him anything - it is the equivalent of giving a coach a gymnast like Nadia Comaneci, you really want raw talent to work with, not the final product. A levels are meaningless anyway, nobody gets a job with just A levels, so f*** it - we may as well just substitute them with IQ tests type exams.

Marc: May I play the devil's advocate here: you can indeed train children to improve their performance in IQ tests. There are pretty standard tests to do with various kinds of reasoning (abstract, logical, verbal, deductive, spatial etc). A rich kid can have an expert tutor sit down with him and explain to him how these tests work, familiarize the kid with test conditions - whilst you can't improve the child's IQ, such training can clearly improve a child's performance during the test. That's why gymnasts train hard, right? It doesn't matter how talented you are, you still need to train many hours a week before you're ready to step up and perform during a major competition, well the same principle applies to IQ tests.

Limpeh: That's right - that's why the questions for these kind of exams should be so difficult that no amount of training can help you find the answer. If you simply give students 60 maths questions to solve within an hour, but they are fairly easy: then you're simply testing if they are efficient and disciplined to work under pressure rather than trying to find out if they have exceptional talent in maths. But if you give them 6 questions to solve in an hour, but those questions are extremely difficult, then running out of time or having the discipline to perform under pressure no longer becomes a factor, it then boils down to the very thing we are trying to test: raw intelligence. Of course, such exams can be extremely demoralizing for some as I imagine that some students will score a big fat zero under such a system - it is harsh but at least it levels the playing field for students who do not have access to private tuition and expensive professional help.

Marc: How would this work in practice? Can you give me an example?

Limpeh: Okay since I am fascinated with learning languages, let me talk about my experiences with doing Chinese in school. It was completely focused on rote learning, we were forced to memorize huge chunks of texts, given that there is no alphabet system, the only way you could write loads of words in an exam is by memorizing them all. But it went beyond that, students are made to memorize stock phrases which are the equivalent of "it is raining cats and dogs" or "selling like hotcakes" - yes we know what that means, but if you use it people will just roll their eyes because it is an unoriginal cliche. It doesn't demonstrate that you have a real mastery of the language, it just goes to show that you've memorized a long list of phrases. I remember how our Chinese teacher made us memorize a really long Tang dynasty poem and it was not as if he was testing our ability to explain or understand the poem: no, we were given a week to memorize the whole darn thing and the test was basically how much of it we could write down within like 10 minutes. He didn't care if we understood the poem, he just wanted us to memorize it. Given the kind of emphasis they had on rote learning, you knew you could ace the oral exam if you simply demonstrated that you have indeed memorized the long list of phrases that you were given and conversely, if you fail to use any of those phrases, you will be penalized.

I have actually worked with people from China and they simply do not talk like that - these are native speakers of Mandarin and they have a true mastery of the language, they know how to express themselves beautifully with wit without resorting to using any of these cliche stock phrases. They would often come up with original witty phrases to express themselves - I remember suggesting to my Chinese colleague that we could go to the museum of modern art and she said, "对不起我是没有文化细胞的" ("sorry I am devoid of cells for culture"). That meant that there wasn't a single cell in her that was interested in going to the museum of modern art. Now I thought that was witty and original, that was the kind of fun expression a native speaker could come up with but if she used that in the Chinese exam, the teacher would have probably failed her for trying to be too clever and not using one of the stock phrases she was told to memorize for the sake of the exams. So this is clearly an example of how we desperately need to move away from rote learning and focus more on whether the students can apply what they know in an everyday situation or business context where they have to use the language. In fact, in the times when I had to use Mandarin in my work, I would steer clear of using those cliche phrases for they would only make me sound stupid. Instead, it is more about me making the most of my knowledge of Mandarin creatively and imaginatively, that's how I demonstrate my mastery of the Chinese language.

Okay, Chinese is a bit of an extreme example but I wanted to make a point about a subject which is very poorly taught and the exam system being totally f***ed up. The same thing can be said about all the other subjects - therefore under this current system, we are not really testing for intelligence, rather we're testing whether the student has sat down and spent ages memorizing everything s/he needs to do well for that exam. That means that students who are not that intelligent can still score quite well in such a system as long as they put in the hard work, whereas as a gatekeeper, I am desperately trying to identify those who do have that unfair advantage of an abnormally high IQ and EQ - the exam system doesn't tell me that, so I am having to resort to other means to try to find that out during the recruitment process. Changing the syllabus and the way the students are tested may be a huge shock to the A level system (and boy, I can just imagine the teachers protesting), but that is going to be far cheaper than trying to pump millions and millions of pounds of investment into the primary and secondary education system to try to improve the current situation. Such a change would mean that rich kids cannot bluff their way into a top university without some real intelligence: whilst you can coach a student to do well in an exam, you cannot teach them how to be intelligent. These dumb rich white kids have their parents' money, they'll be fine regardless, hence let's give the others a fair chance to get into a top university too.

Marc: I see a problem though in implementing this. The current system favours the rich and those who are poor are at a disadvantage, would the rich want to level the playing field or keep that advantage they currently have? I have a good friend whose son is kinda dumb, he's a good kid but just talking to him, you can sense that he's not intelligent at all. But guess what? His family is rich and they have sent him to an expensive private school where they have gotten him the best help he can get. We all know that boy is stupid, even his parents have admitted as much - but his family are doing everything to ensure that they can pass him off as an intelligent person able to have a fighting chance of getting a decent job in the future. The boy can memorize stuff for exams, but there's no real intelligence required in doing that. Still, he is able to do okay in this system which does allow him to masquerade as someone with average intelligence. Rich people like my friend want to retain the status quo because it allows that boy to retain a shred of respectability - if I may point out the obvious, not all rich kids are intelligent, even if they do have the resources to get the best education money can buy.

Limpeh: So Marc, what do you think about my proposal? Can it work? Is it realistic?

Marc: Sounds great in principle but trying to change the education system in this country so radically... it won't happen. Not in the short run anyway. I'm afraid many who are involved in education have never ever worked outside the education sector - the teachers for example would have probably worked all their lives in a school and have no idea what kind of challenges their students would face looking for a job in the real world. That's why we need the government to take charge and implement these major changes to help keep our education relevant to this day and age - I place the responsibility for this in the hands of the government. But instead, people like Lammy are just interested in playing the blame game and even you've come up with far more practical solutions than to point fingers. This is why the situation is so dismal and disappointing when a blogger like you can be far more resourceful than a supposedly well-respected MP.

Limpeh: Let's end on that note. Many thanks for taking the time to talk to me Marc.

Marc: Thank you too.

This post was first published over at the blog of Limpeh Is Foreign Talent on 23 October 2017. It is reproduced with permission.


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