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Lack of viewpoint diversity is uniformly bad

Written by Lindsay Paterson, guest writer
25 August 2020

The chaos of this year’s school assessments throughout the UK has revealed one striking fact about decision taking. It seems that no-one senior in the relevant public bodies, at any point along the road, was warned internally about what might happen. Yet many people on the outside saw the catastrophe coming. Why the discrepancy?
One salient feature stands out: the lack of internal diversity of viewpoint. Once the examining bodies had decided that the peril to avoid at all costs was grade inflation (under the euphemistic title of ‘standardisation’), they were impervious to other ways of seeing the challenge. It is not that this paramount goal had to preclude attention to the plight of individual students. It is rather that seeing the goal in these aggregate terms induced everyone to think statistically, neglecting the impact on individuals.
So this is an example of what can happen in the absence of viewpont diversity. There has been much debate about that in relation to academic freedom, first of all in north America and more recently in the UK. A well-informed research report by the Policy Exchange has concluded that shrinking diversity of point of view is becoming a serious threat to academic freedom in the UK. The research found that academics would discriminate against people whose political ideology was different from their own. Because academics are now overwhelmingly on the left, as the data from that piece of research demonstrates, this is gradually imposing a more uniform left-wing viewpoint on academic debate.
Now, we might say that what academics get up to in the obscurity of journals that only other academics read is not of great concern. But the result is what the authors of the report call a “chilling effect” on free debate, where people censor their own views. That effect is most pronounced on the minority who are conservative. This then has an impact on students, especially in social science and the humanities. A half of conservative academics in these fields said they refrain from airing their political views in the classroom, double the proportion for academics on the far left, and four times that for the centre-left. Proper debate about policy is impossible in such an atmosphere.
The absence of viewpoint diversity has also been raised in connection with the corporate boardroom, which takes us back to the assessment debacle this year. The policy problem here is a confusion between viewpoint diversity and what has been called demographic diversity. Opening up management to women and people from minority ethnic groups is indisputably a contribution to equalising opportunities. But it is no guarantee of diversity of viewpoint, essentially because all graduates are socialised into very similar viewpoints by their increasingly homogeneous university experience.
If the Scottish Qualifications Authority – or Ofqual, the exams regulator in the rest of the UK – had brought more diverse points of view into their discussions, it is likely that some of this year’s problems would have been averted. There are two ways they could have done this. One would have been to have more diverse voices internally. This conclusion is how the debate about viewpoint diversity in management has tended to go in recent years. It’s wise to select staff for diversity of ideas as well as for diversity of social origin.

But that is difficult and controversial. There is an alternative: bring ideas in from outside by exposing data and methods to external scrutiny. The SQA repeatedly refused to do that. Ofqual did some of it, but declined to listen to the advice which was then offered.
Unlike commercial organisations, public bodies such as the SQA and Ofqual can be forced to open up because they are ultimately overseen by elected legislatures. Of all the contextual features that must change before next year, this is the most important. The Scottish and UK parliaments must compel these bodies to invite critical scrutiny. That kind of diversity really can bring results.

Lindsay Paterson is professor of educational policy in the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh. His main academic interests are in education, civic engagement and political attitudes. He has degrees in mathematics and in statistics, and is part of the Q-Step Centre at Edinburgh University, the aim of which is to strengthen the extent and depth of undergraduate statistical understanding in the social sciences. He has contributed to many debates in Scotland since the early 1990s on the impact of education policies, and on the importance of policy implementation in achieving or modifying the aims of policy-makers.

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