Affirmative Action for the Upper Class

The top university in Australia recently announced a new scheme for assessing undergraduate applicants. The ANU’s new policy will substantially loosen the requirements for academic results and add a new requirement for extra-curricular activities. This acts to screen out those from working class backgrounds and ensure those from the upper class take their ordained place, regardless of talent.


Traditionally university entry in Australia has been strictly based upon an ATAR score, which combines together a student’s results from their final year of school into a single number. This has ensured that the most talented are able to study, rather than just those with the financial means. Though the ATAR does have some implicit bias towards those with access to the highest quality secondary schooling, it is a reasonably fair way of assessing academic merit.


The new ANU plan sets only a low floor requirement using the ATAR, but adds a requirement for extracurricular activities. Prospective students must meet 3 of 7 general categories, with examples such as unpaid internships, school captaincy or performing in a creative production. It is perhaps unsurprising that an institution where only 2% of students are from a low socioeconomic background would fail to see how this discriminates against the working class.


Consider Ethan Windsor-Habsburg, whose father is a management consultant and mother can afford to stay at home in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. He has all the opportunities in the world for extracurricular activities at his elite private school, supported by his doting mother. Even without much natural talent, he can now pass the ANU’s low academic bar and supplement it with his rugby union, school debating society and the internship at his father’s mate’s finance company.


Bec Hunt lives with her mother in the northern suburbs of Adelaide. Her parents are divorced and with her mother’s insecure work, she can’t afford the cost nor plan the time for any of Ethan’s special activities. She performs well academically at her underfunded public school, but her teachers spend more time dealing with truancy than organising poetry competitions or science fairs. Despite her talent and academic performance, the ANU doesn’t want her.


Although Ethan and Bec aren’t real, the difference between access to extracurricular activities certainly is. Snellman et al looked at longitudinal studies of American high schoolers in 2015 and found that not only is there a clear class gap in extracurricular involvement, it is sharply increasing over time. Those from the upper quartile have more opportunity for extracurricular activities of all types than those from the lower quartile. Indeed, the authors conclude “that class-based inequality in social and civic engagement has nearly quadrupled in three decades is startling and presents a challenge to the American ideal of equal opportunity”.


Equal opportunity in education is vital to avoid the stratification of class hierarchies. Those with the talent must be able to learn from the best professors to build both their own skills and our future. A university education should be available to those with the ability, not just to those with bourgeois social status. Screening students for extracurricular activities acts only to entrench class privilege and exclude those from working class backgrounds. The ANU’s new admission policy is a step towards the segregation of education – a world where it matters who your parents are, not your own abilities.


I graduated with 1st class honours in aerospace engineering from another of Australia’s sandstone universities. Under the ANU’s new admissions policy, I wouldn’t have been allowed in.