Does “Talent” really trump “Diversity”?

David Lammy’s article about the lack of diversity in Oxbridge brought up a lot of very interesting response comments.  I would normally ignore those, having read the main article but one in particular set me thinking.  The writer merely stated something along the lines that “talent is more important than diversity”. I then read another article today regarding the treatment of UCT’s deputy  Vice Chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, outlining a theory that, because of her African heritage (she jokes about her ‘kinky hair’), her qualifications for the role were treated with some suspicion by certain alumni members.

Is it the case, therefore, that we automatically assume talent exists within certain circles (public schools in particular) and not within others?  Is talent inherently related to class or one’s ability to pay for a particular education?  Is talent restricted or linked somehow to privilege?  If we place so much importance on only talent, how do we recognise it?  If we have a diverse population, should we not have the same or similar representation within a “talented” group of individuals?  Are we actually able to recognise it when it is packaged differently?  At public schools, students are not just taught to ace the exams, but they are trained in impressing at the Oxbridge interviews.  Their privilege has already given them access to people, situations and networks which many other schoolchildren don’t even know exist. So – should we look at where we expect to see talent and how we expect it to manifest? It all takes hard work – that is not being disputed – but what happens if, when we look around, we are not even thinking of looking at these other kids? Is it easier to believe that a black African Professor got her job purely because of her colour (affirmative action) and to balance the University’s diversity figures? Was there no scrutiny of her appointment or background checks to verify her capability? Is it easier to assume that she, in no way, possessed a modicum of talent or even reasonable qualifications?

It’s a tricky message to consider – yes we should be very concerned with recruiting talented and capable people, but what happens if we are also assuming that these people will just come to us? How much effort do we need to put into seeking out talent within less represented sectors of the population?

I once argued with someone about the lack of black players within the South African national rugby team. That an England team will regularly field more black players seemed to me bizarre and yet in more than 20 years post-Apartheid, South Africa struggles to find more than a handful of non-white players each year.  His response was that there quite clearly wasn’t the talent among the black population in South Africa… Specifically, he said, “It’s the white man’s game“.  But why? Do black players lack physicality or other skills necessary to play rugby? Really? I argued that they simply weren’t looking in the right places and therefore weren’t identifying or nurturing the right skills.  If the government then had to impose a quota to rectify or even start to rebalance the team, then at least SARU had had plenty of time to look at it themselves without significant results.

My assumption is not that the talent doesn’t exist – it just isn’t being found or sought out. My feeling about Oxbridge is the same. Talent should be considered inherently diverse, but in order to get that to be reflected in our elite institutions will take more work than just assuming it will be found by looking in the same places or by testing people the same way.  While the statement that talent should be considered more important than diversity is not automatically racist or sexist, if your assumption is that Oxbridge should not therefore change or reconsider its practices for identifying and nurturing that talent, I would argue that you are missing an important point. Oxbridge should not be dropping its standards – rather it should look at whether its own assumptions about how best to identify excellence works for more than just a privileged sector of society. In a diverse population, is it an unreasonable assumption that a pool of talented people should reflect this – maybe not precisely, but certainly much more closely?