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Affirmative action should be viewed in global context

Universities in South Africa do it… image via

“Affirmative action won’t be around for much longer, ” said one of our professors twenty years ago, advising against writing a dissertation on this topic. The United States Supreme Court’s Schuette decision earlier this year reinforces this common perception.

Schuette took up the question of the constitutionality of Michigan’s Proposal 2, a ballot initiative that amended Michigan’s state constitution to eliminate the consideration of race in public higher education admissions decisions, which passed in 2006. The Sixth Circuit Court subsequently ruled that Proposal 2 was unconstitutional because it violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. This April, however, with what The New York Times Editorial Board called “a blinkered view on race in America,” the US Supreme Court ruled against the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action. The Justices ruled, 6-2 (with Justice Elena Kagan recusing herself) that voters were permitted to eliminate affirmative action policies in state public education, hiring, and contracting.

So, is affirmative action in higher education on its way out? If you look beyond the US and take a global perspective, the answer is no.

An update on the White House’s perspective

In the October 27th edition of The New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin examines President Obama’s influence on the Supreme Court. Regarding the issue of affirmative action in higher education admissions and the Court’s relevant rulings, President Obama argues in favor of the constitutionality of affirmative action, within limits. He goes on to say that institutions of higher education are the best ones to judge what measures are needed to maintain and enhance the diversity on campus that contributes important educational benefits to all students.

Despite the White House’s perspective, US Supreme Court decisions on university affirmative action have made it difficult for some American colleges and universities to engage in affirmative action.

At the same time, about one quarter of the world’s other countries have some form of affirmative action for student admissions into higher education, and many of these programs have emerged over the last 25 years.

Around the world with affirmative action

These policies may go by many names – affirmative action, reservations, alternative access, positive discrimination – but all are efforts to increase the numbers of underrepresented students in higher education.

A wide variety of institutions and governments on six continents have programs to expand admissions of non-dominant groups of students on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, class, geography, or type of high school. Several use a combination of these categories.

In fact, the United States’ affirmative action policies in higher education are not the oldest: India’s policies for lower caste students take that prize. But given that US policies are older than most, much of the cutting edge thinking on the topic is now coming from other parts of the world.

South Africa’s many, and varied, alternative access programs, for example, not only admit underrepresented students, such as black (especially black female) students. They also provide special courses and mentoring to facilitate success.

The French are even more reluctant than many Americans to consider race directly, but some selective institutions have increased students of color by targeting neighborhoods or particular schools located in priority education areas. Areas are classified as ZEPS (Zones d’Education Prioritaires) based on several criteria including high percentages of immigrant students for whom French is a second language, students performing below grade level, and low income students. Students from these areas are eligible to compete to be part of special admissions programs, which are designed to give them greater access to selective higher education.

India is less coy about who is being targeted, coining the rather blunt term “Other Backward Classes” (OBCs) as an official designation for one set of recent beneficiaries of affirmative action in higher education. While continuing to recognize the importance of discrimination based on caste when designating groups as OBCs, India also includes economic criteria. They exclude, for example, individuals whose family income or property exceeds certain limits.

Brazil has been developing affirmative action programs in its higher status public universities over the past two decades. The issue is often framed by human rights and social justice concerns. The Brazilian government first introduced the potential need for affirmative action as a “right thing to do” after years of denial of racial inequalities in the country.

Many of these affirmative action policies emerged in the last twenty-five years. The cases of Brazil and South Africa show that institutional or local affirmative action can inspire broader government actions. More recent affirmative action policies differ both in ideology and practice from prior preferential policies that emerged under colonial, communist, or postcolonial regimes, but previous policies set the stage for current developments.

Affirmative action for women is the most prevalent form of affirmative action for students in higher education and is particularly pervasive in the most recent wave of affirmative action policies in the 1990s and 2000s.

Whereas the earliest forms of affirmative action rarely included women, programs that started more recently are more likely to include women. Countries that have some kind of affirmative action related to gender in higher education admissions are spread across world regions, and include eight countries in Africa, seven in Europe and four in North America/Caribbean.

Affirmative action based on geography appeals to policy makers reluctant to give race, ethnicity or caste such a prominent and explicit role in policies, and place-based affirmative action seems to be catching on around the world. In addition to France, universities in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East have experimented with geographic, urban/rural, or type-of-school indicators in affirmative action admission policies; these include institutions in India, Israel, Pakistan, South Africa, and Sri Lanka, to name a few.

Whether motivated by a desire to increase access, to expand diversity, or simply to recalibrate existing policies in response to court rulings or state referenda, administrators and policymakers in the US would do well to look abroad.

Affirmative action is alive and well - and increasing - elsewhere. Indeed, some of the most creative discussions and innovations are happening outside the United States.

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