Understanding affirmative action in a global context

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Last week, a federal judge ruled in favor of Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policies, writing that diversity-centered admissions policies will “enhance the education of students of all races and backgrounds.”

But this will not be the last word about affirmative action, at Harvard or across American higher education. The details that came out in the Harvard case — along with the FBI’s Operation Varsity Blues — will not be forgotten.

Colleges can expect more scrutiny over questions of their interpretation of regression scores, preference for athletes, and the influence of donors and legacy admissions. College leaders and higher education policymakers should be thinking about how they can evolve and improve their affirmative action policies. One key way to start is by looking abroad.

In the United States, we often debate affirmative action as if this is the only country where these policies have been tried. In fact, many other countries have created systems and formulas to try to increase racial, ethnic and gender participation in schools, the workplace and government. Some of these policies predate the U.S. experiment by more than a century and can teach us about entrenched inequities.

For example, the largest nationally sponsored affirmative action program was established in India under British colonial rule in the late 19th century. India’s caste system had historically prohibited members of the Dalit, the “untouchable” castes, from going to school and moving into decent employment.

The affirmative action program, termed the “reservation” system, transformed life for many in the lower caste groups in India.

As recently as 1965, Dalits held just 1.6 percent of the most senior civil service positions. Currently, Dalits’ share rose to an estimated 11 percent, nearly identical to the Dalits’ representation in the Indian population. Dalits now have a chamber of commerce representing their interests and more than 80 members in the lower house of parliament. 

The effects of this reservation system by caste are continually felt in education in today’s India. Like in the United States, India’s quota system has faced considerable political pushback. However, even so, 22.5 percent of all places in educational institutions that have complete or partial government funding remain reserved for caste and tribal youth.

Recent research has found that India’s reservation policy, when applied to India’s most prestigious universities, led to a three-fold increase in enrollment among the disadvantaged groups.

Numerous other countries — including post-apartheid South Africa, Brazil, Bulgaria, China and France, just to name a few — have put into place one or another kind of affirmative action policy with quota systems in education that directly address historical discrimination. Using educational remedies to help address social injustice is not unique to the United States.

While the U.S. has never had a formal quota system in education, the effects of systemic racism have in many ways created a de-facto caste system that predates the founding of the country and still affects the everyday lives of millions. It’s time to try something new that explicitly acknowledges that basic truth. 

If we take a lesson from India and these other countries, we could start to build a system that proactively increases equity in higher education. It could be a major step toward creating a more diverse, representative, fair and prosperous society for everyone.

Daniel A. Wagner is UNESCO chair and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. His latest book is “Learning as Development: Rethinking International Education in a Changing World.”

Tags Affirmative action Daniel A. Wagner Education Harvard

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