Of the 20 top local authorities in terms of sending pupils to the prestigious Russell Group universities, 19 are in London and the south. Of the 20 worst-performing councils on the same league table, 18 are in the north.
Commentators claim this is an unacceptable divide and believe that this creates a “lottery” for places at top universities arbitrarily based on where you live. Greg Clark, the cities and universities minister, who has led the government’s push for a “northern powerhouse”, is duly demanding that universities do more to attract students from northern schools.
The superficial knee-jerk conclusion here is that some sort of discrimination is causing this disparity. This is based on an untested assumption: that academically talented children and equally spread across the UK. If so, they should suggest some sort of mechanism for this discrimination and provide some evidence, rather than just naively looking at the spread of successful candidates in Russell Group Universities.
To prove the discrimination hypothesis one must prove that there is a difference in the quality of the schools across the north-south divide and secondly that this difference materially affects the academic outcome of the brightest students. But it seems it is not the schools causing this divide: New research by the UK Government’s university funding body, based on 132,000 students, shows the effect of the quality of schooling has a much smaller effect on academic results then was previously believed. For the brightest pupils quality of schooling makes no difference at all.
If it’s not the quality of schooling are we to believe that Russell Group Universities just prefer southern students? i.e. actively discriminate against northern children? This is a ludicrous proposition.
Let’s assume for the moment that Russell Group Universities just choose the best qualified candidates and seek another explanation for the north-south divide.
First we must acknowledge that academic talent and motivation are largely heritable (i.e. we receive them through our genes). This has been proven over and over again using identical twin and adoption studies. Over the last 100 years at least 200 of them have given the same results and have been recently re-verified using massive studies at Kings College London. Differences in students’ GCSE results owe more to genetics than environment. This also revalidates the research (above) from the UK Government’s university funding body that schooling is less important than most people suppose.
Combine the fact that academic talent and motivation is largely inherited through our genes with one of the most passionate and time consuming aspects of human behaviour, i.e. finding a mate, and you have a very powerful natural force. Talented, motivated women generally seek and marry talented, motivated men. They then generally have talented, motivated children. i.e. they cluster the genes responsible for these talented, motivated characteristics into certain sections of society. As these characteristics generally lead to higher earning potential they are more likely cluster in the affluent parts of society. Consequently talented, motivated children are not equally spread in our society. This is unfair, but I’m explaining the is not the ought. This biological process is called assortative mating.
So here is a potential mechanism for the north-south divide that does not involve ludicrous conspiracy or discrimination theories.
Academically talented people from the north of England have been getting into prestigious universities on merit ever since Britain’s ludicrous class based society was largely dismantled after World War 1.
Our talented northerners got a good degree and then searched for the best paying jobs, which happened to be in the south of England. Here they married other academically talented people also seeking high paying, prestigious jobs. They both settled in the south and passed on their academically talented genes to their children. This process is still going on. Over a period of a number of generations there will be a clustering of academically talented genes in the affluent parts of society, which in the case of the UK happens to be the south of England.
Top universities may be becoming less socially representative, but they are representing where the talent has clustered because in a relatively socially mobile environment, talented genes will cluster in affluent parts of society.
A perfectly reasonable explanation, backed by good scientific theory that does not need to involve ludicrous discrimination or conspiracy theories.
Further listening on the genetics of intelligence:
Intelligence: Born Smart, Born Equal, Born Different. Three BBC Radio programmes on the genetics of intelligence.
What makes some children smarter than others? Professor Robert Plomin talks to Jim Al-Khalili about what makes some people smarter than others and why he’s fed up with the genetics of intelligence being ignored.
Pleiotropy across academic subjects at the end of compulsory education An article in Nature on the genetic effects to human intelligence and GCSE results in the UK.
Differences in degree outcomes: Key findings (examines the extent to which a student’s background affects their chance of obtaining an upper second or first class degree)
Getting ’em young (The Economist looks at the impact of early years education)