Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Supreme Court to take up UT admission case

In the fall of 2008, the University of Texas enrolled 10,335 minority students, not including Asian-Americans. As far as Abigail Fisher was concerned, that was one too many.

Fisher had made good grades in high school - a 3.59 average on a 4.0 scale - posted a score of 1180 on the SAT test and finished as number 82 in a graduating class of 674 at Stephen F. Austin High School in Sugar Land. She figured that was good enough. Then came those dreadful words: "We regret to inform you ..."

Fisher was heartbroken. Her dad went to Texas, and her sister. She bled burnt orange. "I had dreamt of going to UT since the second grade," she said.

This week Fisher may get a little payback. On Wednesday the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the lawsuit she brought against the school that challenges an admissions policy that openly allows for the use of racial preferences. If she's successful - and legal pundits are saying there is a good chance - colleges and universities could henceforth be banned from even considering the racial or ethnic backgrounds of applicants.

"I was taught from the time I was a little girl that any kind of discrimination was wrong," Fisher said in a videotaped interview posted on YouTube by her lawyers, who have asked her to do no press interviews. "For an institution of higher learning to act this way makes no sense to me. What kind of example does this set for others?"

Fisher's collegiate career worked out fine. She went to Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and received her finance degree earlier this year. She has a job as a financial analyst and a promising future.

But the UT rejection still bothers her. She said she knew of classmates who had a less polished résumé than hers but were Austin-bound anyway, and she had an idea why.  "The only difference between us was the color of our skin," Fisher said.

Current law, established by a Supreme Court ruling in 2003, allows schools to consider race in narrow circumstances to achieve a "critical mass" of minority students. But the high court said the practice cannot continue indefinitely and called on them to work toward a colorblind admission process.

Not colorblind yet

UT says that time has not yet arrived.  "Certainly all aspire for a colorblind society in which race does not matter - and need not be considered to ensure a diverse proving ground for the Nation's future leaders," its brief to the court states. "But in Texas, as in America, our highest aspirations are yet unfulfilled. In the end, (Fisher) really is just asking this Court to move the goal posts on higher education in America."

Reverse discrimination, as some call it, has been a public flash point for two generations. Civil rights advocates argue that simply striking down racial barriers would hardly undo the harm inflicted by two centuries as an apartheid state. Conservatives argue that two wrongs don't make a right, that giving a job or school applicant preference because of skin color is at odds with the Constitution, creates ill will and casts a shadow over those who get preferred.

They see a favorable ruling as a potential steppingstone to the elimination of all racial preferences. Fisher's concern was somewhat narrower. She simply felt she was shafted.

"I took a ton of AP classes, I studied hard and did my homework - and I made the honor roll," she said. "I was in extracurricular activities. I played the cello and was in the math club, and I volunteered. I put in the work I thought was necessary to get into UT."

The one thing Fisher did not do, which would have ensured her admission, was graduate in the top 10 percent of her class. By state law, those students are accepted automatically.

The school argued that Fisher was not even close to being admitted, given the stiff competition for a small number of spots. She was so low she was not even considered for the provisional "summer program," which allowed students to take summer courses at UT and then be admitted if they did well. (The provisional admission no longer exists.)

UT also pointed out that 168 minority students who ranked higher in the overall admissions scoring also were denied entry to the summer program. Fisher, according to the school, simply did not measure up; her so-called Academic Index number was too low. The index is made of GPA, SAT score and the strength of her school's curriculum and how she did in certain courses.

But UT did not stop there. In its brief to the Supreme Court, the school said that even if Fisher had ranked as high as she could have on other personal factors - implying that even if race had worked in her favor - she would not have been admitted: The competition was simply too great for her to stand out.

Looking beyond Fisher

However the high court rules, it will be too late to have an effect on Fisher. But that was never the point of the lawsuit. The idea is to stop racial preferences, period.

"UT has a successful race-neutral way of achieving a diverse student body," said Edward Blum, head of Project for Fair Representation, a Washington, D.C.-based group opposed to affirmative action. "That race-neutral method created more diversity than race-based affirmative action had before it. The addition of race-based affirmative action to the top 10 has not brought significant numbers of black and Hispanic students to UT."

UT disagrees, saying that of the 2008 freshman class Fisher sought to join, 20 percent of African-American students and 15 percent of Hispanic students were added via the holistic review process of which race is a factor.

Blum does not dispute the value of a diverse student body, but says many schools accomplish the same thing simply through a detailed consideration of individual factors.


British graduate starting salaries down 13pc over year

Huge competition for graduate jobs has pushed starting salaries down 13pc on average over the past year, bringing further misery to this year’s degree cohort, new research reveals.

Graduates who started new jobs this summer received an average salary of £22,800 - a “marked” 13.2pc less than last year, an analysis of graduate salaries at more than 60 recruiters found.

Ann Swain, chief executive of the Association of Professional Staffing Companies (APSCO), which commissioned the study, said: “The slowdown in the professional-recruitment market, combined with the huge number of graduates competing for jobs means that starting salaries have edged downwards markedly this year.”

The survey also shows that permanent job hires fell by 15pc over the past year, as employers increasingly opted to recruit temporary staff as a flexible means of securing labour.

Placements of temporary staff in the UK white-collar jobs market rose by 15pc in the year to September, the survey showed,

APSCO said many UK businesses are turning to temporary workers to kick-start projects that were put on hold during the summer, as many companies scaled back activity due to staff taking time off for holidays and the Olympics.

The banking sector continues to “stutter”, putting permanent hires on hold as management teams scrutinise headcount, the staffing body said.

Elsewhere, a survey by KPMG and the Recruitment and Employment Confederation painted a more rosy picture. Permanent placements were beginning to “stabilise” across industries, while temporary hires rose for the second month running, the data showed.

But pay growth remains muted as the number of candidates looking for roles increases, with the economy remaining “fragile”, KPMG said.

Bernard Brown, partner at KPMG, said: “The jobs market cannot be viewed in isolation as any sustainable improvement in employment remains dependent on the growth of the economy as a whole.

“While some parts of the country may be showing signs of recovery, others are lagging behind and until an upward trajectory is seen across the whole of the UK, the jobs market will remain fragile with warnings to ‘handle with care’.”

Meanwhile, a survey of over 1,000 engineers in the UK reveals over half have lost confidence in government policy towards the industry, with a similar number sceptical that companies will continue to invest locally.

The findings, from recruiter Matchtech, reveal three-quarters think not enough is being done to encourage innovation in the UK and two thirds do not feel confident the UK will be a world-leader in engineering in future.


Finnish education isn't all it's cracked up to be

Comment from Australia

THE topic for the Festival of Dangerous Ideas forum last Saturday at the Sydney Opera House was Abolish Private Schools and Pasi Sahlberg from Finland was one of the keynote speakers.

Having a speaker from Finland shouldn't surprise. Within cultural-left circles the Finnish education system is the flavour of the month and regularly praised by non-government school critics such as the Australian Education Union and Richard Teese from the University of Melbourne.

Critics argue that Australia should follow the Finnish example as it has top ranking in the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment maths and science tests, and forsake high-risk tests such as Australia's National Assessment Program -- Literacy and Numeracy.

If only it were that simple. While it's true that Finland was at the top of the PISA table in the 2006 tests, ranking first in maths, science and reading, since that time the country's results have gone backwards.

In the 2009 PISA test Finland dropped to sixth in maths, second in science and third in reading. In the 2009 test not only did Shanghai rank No 1 in the three areas but most of the other top performing education systems also were in the East Asian region.

It also needs to be noted that in the other more academically based and credible international test, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, the last time the two countries met Australia outperformed Finland.

In Year 8 maths and Year 8 science Australia was ranked 13th and seventh, while Finland was placed 14th and 10th.

While those opposed to high-risk tests point to Finland to argue there is no value or benefit in high-risk tests and failing students, what is conveniently ignored is that the more successful East Asian countries have education systems that are highly competitive, where students are pressured to succeed and often streamed in terms of ability.

Cultural-left academics and professional associations also like to use the example of Finland to argue Australia's non-government system should not be funded. Unlike Australia, where about 36 per cent of students attend Catholic and independent schools, the supposedly world's best Finnish system is government funded and there are no private schools.

Best illustrated by comments made by Sahlberg on Channel 7's Weekend Sunrise, the argument is that countries can achieve outstanding results without the presence of non-government schools. Abolishing non-government schools is also beneficial, according to Sahlberg, as such schools do well only because they enrol privileged students and they are guilty of reinforcing inequality.

Once again, such arguments lack credibility. As proven by research carried out by Melbourne-based academic Gary Marks, non-government schools outperform government schools even after adjusting for students' socioeconomic status.

OECD commissioned research noted the impact of SES on student and school performance is calculated at between 20 per cent and 35 per cent.

Equally, if not more important, are factors such as teacher quality, having a rigorous curriculum, school culture and the ability and motivation of students.

While critics argue that Australia's education system is riven with inequity and injustice it's also the case, based on the most recent OECD publication, Education at a Glance 2012, that Australia has a high degree of social mobility.

In relation to gaining tertiary entry the statement is made: "Young people from low educational backgrounds have the greatest chances of upward educational mobility in the countries clustered in the upper right quadrant of the chart.

"The chances of completing a tertiary education exceeds 25 per cent in Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, The Netherlands and Sweden, and is greater than 30 per cent in Australia and Ireland."

Research commissioned by the National Catholic Education Commission, published in its submission to the Gonski review of school funding, provides evidence that Australia's non-government school sector is worthy when it concludes that Catholic schools are "high quality-high equity" based on the PISA tests.

Given Julia Gillard's boast that Australian students will be in the top five countries of the PISA test by 2025, and ongoing debates about school funding in the context of the Gonski report, it's understandable why many look overseas for ideas.

The danger in the belief that the best way to strengthen schools and raise standards is to copy supposedly stronger performing systems such as Finland's is that it is simplistic and unrealistic. It's also ironic that as many are looking overseas for answers, the success of Australia's non-government schools is ignored.


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