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Elite institutions' class bias simply reflects 'meritocracy'

Higher IQs mean upper-class domination is 'natural', academic says. Rebecca Attwood reports

The low proportion of working-class students at elite universities is the "natural outcome" of IQ differences between the classes, an academic claimed this week.

Bruce Charlton, reader in evolutionary psychiatry at Newcastle University, provoked a furious response with his claims that the greater proportion of students from higher social classes at highly selective universities is not a sign of admissions prejudice but rather the result of simple meritocracy.

Dr Charlton says in a paper shown to Times Higher Education: "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.

"Evidence to support the allegation of systematic unfairness has never been presented. Nevertheless, the accusation has been used to fuel a populist 'class war' agenda.

"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."

He argues that simple mathematics lies behind the fact that the proportion of students from lower socioeconomic groups becomes smaller the more selective the university.

"The highly unequal class distributions seen in elite universities compared with the general population are unlikely to be due to prejudice or corruption in the admissions process. On the contrary, the observed pattern is a natural outcome of meritocracy. Indeed, anything other than very unequal outcomes would need to be a consequence of non-merit-based selection methods," he writes.

The National Union of Students branded Dr Charlton's arguments "wrong-headed, irresponsible and insulting".

Gemma Tumelty, president of the NUS, said: "Of course, social inequality shapes people's lives long before they leave school, but the higher education sector cannot be absolved of its responsibility to ensure that students from all social backgrounds are given the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

"The simple fact is that many talented individuals from poor backgrounds are currently not given the same opportunities as those from more privileged backgrounds. This problem will not be addressed as long as academics such as Bruce Charlton are content to accept the status quo and do nothing to challenge the inherent class bias in education."

Robert Sternberg, dean of arts and sciences at Tufts University in the US and an expert on human intelligence, said Dr Charlton was guilty of "narrow, in-the-box, elitist thinking".

He told Times Higher Education: "Of course there is a correlation between IQ and social class. People of higher social class have much greater educational, economic and socialisation advantages, which they pass on to their children. By adopting the system Dr Charlton recommends, we ensure that the higher classes will continue to pass on these advantages, and we will ice out those of lower social classes. We thereby create self-fulfilling prophecies."

Alan Ryan, warden of New College, Oxford, said the relationship of IQ to academic success was "very much looser than Dr Charlton imagines".

He said: "All the evidence suggests that measured IQ is a function of innate endowment and nurture; high-IQ children in the lowest income quintile do less well in IQ tests over time, while low-IQ children in the highest income quintile do better. The most obvious explanation of the class differential in Oxbridge intake has nothing to do with IQ and everything to do with the ability of private schools to get their students three As at A level."

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said research had shown that students from state schools outperformed their independent school contemporaries when they reached university.

"It is up to all of us to ensure that not having access to the social and educational benefits that money provides is not a barrier to achieving one's full potential," she said.

Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, said Dr Charlton's arguments had a definite tone of "people should know their place".

He added: "Although many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds gain the qualifications to go on to higher education, they are still less likely to do so than their more privileged peers so it is vital that we continue to properly prepare and support students to aspire to higher education."

But Richard Lynn, professor emeritus at the University of Ulster and author of Dysgenics, said: "Bruce Charlton is correct. This has been shown in numerous studies over the course of the past 80 years."


According to Bruce Charlton:

- In the UK, the average IQ is 100;

- Typically, the average IQ of the highest occupational social class (mainly professional and senior managerial workers such as doctors and bank managers) is 115 or more;

- By comparison, the average IQ of the lowest social class of unskilled workers is about 90;

- In round numbers, there are differences of 30 IQ points between the highest and lowest occupational social classes;

- It can be predicted that about half of a random selection of children whose parents are among the cognitive elite (IQs of 130 or higher) would probably be eligible for admission to the most selective universities, but only about one in 200 of kids from the lowest social stratum.

Readers' comments (32)

  • I don't know if to laugh or cry....

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  • Have I just travelled back in time? It has long been accepted (for at least 50 years) in academic research circles that not only are IQ measurements culturally biased they cannot be used independently to explain class differences in educational attainment and participation. By claiming that innate differences in IQ scores explains class differences is unhelpful and derogaory. Researchers have found that rather than IQ scores parental educational attainment, parents occupations, economic advantages and disadvantages, differences in state delivery and private education and pupil and teachers expectations are more likely causal factors of acdemic success or failure.

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  • both sides of the argument fail to address the fundamental issues

    a) Why do oxbridge and others bias against equal IQ and more importantly (as referenced by SH) drive. Its not always want you have but what you do with it!

    b) On the flip side the responsibility for removing this differentiation lies solely and squarely with the government and the education system form primary upwards. However new labour policy is more about dumming everyone done to the same level rather than the harder task of pulling everyone up to the higher attainment levels

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  • If there is no class bias, then why did I have to tell the universities I was applying to back in the early 1990s what my parents did for a living?

    Of course there's going to be a larger proportion from the better educated upper-classes at universities, but why are the state school pupils who achieve similar grades under-represented at our top universities?

    I have always held the opinion that if we had a truely results based entry system (like much of Europe) then it would be the upper-classes who lost out most - no more links between certain Universities and schools, no more donations etc. would get you a place.

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  • The NUS and Prof. Sternberg are the ones who have got it all wrong. Students from less-privileged backgrounds should be given the help they need from the beginning of their schooling life, and not when they apply to universities regardless of how they perform previously! With such passive help, how do you expect them to cope without having standards compromised in their favour?

    Since you have pinpointed where they are disadvantaged, well, go and help them! Stick to the merit-based system and get rid of all these quotas.

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  • My father is a bus driver and my mother is a cashier. I am about as working class as you could get. Not only that, I am also a woman and the child of Indian immigrants, 2 other social classes that have been accused of lower IQ’s at some point in the past.
    I have an IQ of 137, a Bachelors and Masters degree and am currently writing up a PhD in Biotechnology at Cambridge University. I am far from being an exception to the rule too.
    Dr Charlton’s broad sweeping statements attempt to provide “scientific reasoning” to stop efforts encouraging working class students from achieving their full potential, support that most middle class students can expect as standard. As a scientist myself, I know that data can be manipulated to prove anything you want it to but it cannot and should not be used to judge a whole subset of the population as unworthy. A real scientist would have the integrity, honour and sound judgment to know this.
    I know my place Dr Charlton, it is to stand head and shoulders above you and help other working class students to prove you wrong time and time again.

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  • It is meaningless to claim that 'IQ' is the cause of apparent discrimination in admission to the most sought-after university places, because the very concept of 'IQ' is itself discredited. The true problem is that many working class families have no tradition of higher education, and therefore do not value it sufficiently to make the necessary sacrifices for their children. Please note, this is not a claim that they are bad parents, but simply that their values are different. If this anomoly is to be overcome, intervention must begin very early in life, and with parents as well as children. This will represent nothing less than a major culture change, and it is far from clear that it will even be possible, and even if it is done, we should still expect working-class (and other) children to fail to win places at Oxford and Cambridge, for reasons which should be obvious. So can we please have some realistic, achievable policies on tertiary education?

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  • The reaction to this story is absolutely fascinating because most of the responses are along the lines of "how dare he say it", rather than "his data is wrong".

    Individual differences in IQ have been shown to be partly determined by biology rather than being wholly sociological (best estimates are 60% - 80% biology.) There is also plenty of data showing a high correlation between IQ scores and achieved position on the social ladder. It follows that higher class parents will tend (note the word 'tend') to be brighter and therefore produce brighter kids. As a result they in turn will find it easier to get into the most prestigious institutions.

    Charlton's sin appears to have been to broach the subject in the first place. He shatters illusions. It is so much more comforting to believe that we humans are above mere biology and that the modern managerial state can make anything of anybody given enough resources the right mission statement and a thick enough policy document.

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  • Tracy Monteith writes: "It has long been accepted (for at least 50 years) in academic research circles that not only are IQ measurements culturally biased they cannot be used independently to explain class differences in educational attainment and participation." On the other hand, I seem to remember that Jean Floud's research into the 11+ exam in the 1950s showed that IQ test results were less related to social class than those in English and Arithmetic. Those who knock IQ had better come up with a better measurement of ability if the clever working class child is not to be even further disadvantaged than he/she is already.

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  • If a working class child makes it to university, they have done it DESPITE their education not because of it. Consequently, the inherent ability in the student must be higher than the 'average' middle-class student.

    This research has been produced, in my opinion, to justify a long-maintained 'norm' that has ensured that poor kids can be stuck in inadequate schools without having to worry about the injustice.

    As with Hetal above, I come from a working class family. In my experience of the actual people from 'better' schools in industry, the military and academia, they are clearly not inherently superior. They just like to think they are.

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