want ad senior academic british university meritocracy
The screengrab above is from a job advertisement for a senior academic role at a mid-ranking UK university (to which I have no connection), paying a maximum salary of around £63,000 a year. (For context, the median full-time salary in the UK is approximately £33,000.)

British universities frequently advertise a commitment to the Athena SWAN Charter, which is a set of ten principles designed to promote and support equality between genders in institutions of higher education, and which allocates bronze, silver and gold awards on application by such institutions. That universities should remove barriers that unfairly prevent employees from achieving their full potential is a project that almost anybody can get behind - even if we recognise that there is a certain amount of rent-seeking going on whenever a body sets itself up to give out industry awards of this kind.

But explicitly adopting an 'inclusive recruitment process' for the furtherance of equality between men and women in higher education is a new one on me - especially when it is so transparently and obviously wrongheaded (although I suppose nothing should surprise me in this regard anymore). The 'logic', if I can use that word, would appear to be that if all short-listed candidates know in advance what they will be asked at interview, and also know that there will be no unexpected questions or digressions (and can even bring pre-prepared notes on their answers), there will be a level playing field between them and - presumably - no danger of any particular candidate benefiting from the conversation straying into irrelevant areas ('Oh, I didn't know you were a West Ham supporter too! The job's yours!').

Michel Foucault once said that something doesn't have to be bad to be dangerous. That's true. But it is definitely possible for something to be both bad and dangerous, and this is a paradigm case.

Badness first. I don't know if you have ever interviewed a candidate for a job - I must have been involved in something approaching 100 such events - but one thing you will never hear anybody who has performed many interviews say is that they wished the candidates would be more homogenous in their answers. Everyone gives cookie-cutter answers to interview questions - except for the 1% who are misguidedly honest and the 1% who don't give a toss because they've already got a better offer and are just attending the interview for a free meal and a night's stay at a hotel.

This means that the decision about who to hire has to come down to other factors - the candidate's CV and cover letter, and also their demeanour (their calmness and collectedness when answering unexpected questions) and how they come across personally when speaking off the cuff during the interviewing process - whether, in other words, they strike you as somebody who would be a good colleague. If you 'level the playing field' by essentially eliminating the last two factors, all you're left with is the CV and cover letter - or, let's face it, the fifth variable of 'Yeah, I know Simon/Sajid/Stephanie and they went to the same university as I did/know my PhD supervisor/are really nice.'

How this would promote equality is anyone's guess. Instead, what I suspect it will do is promote the hiring of people who have great CVs because they went to the best schools and universities and, in turn, were given the best opportunities to succeed in the world of higher education. And I also suspect it will promote the hiring of staff on the basis not of what they are like at interview, but extraneous factors such as who they know.

So, by its own lights, the idea is bad and will not work. In fact it will most likely be counter-productive and make things less equal in terms of socio-economic background than they are already. But let's turn to its dangerousness.

First, the idea that women cannot perform well at traditional interviews and need supportive measures in those circumstances is itself insulting and disempowering. One would have thought this would go without saying; apparently it doesn't, and it is important therefore to say it. This will undermine women in the workplace and smear them with the slur that they cannot be as good as male colleagues without a leg-up. (Or, worse, it will cement grievance and deepen the mutual antagonism between the sexes, with women becoming increasingly convinced that men can't be trusted to conduct interviews fairly, and men becoming increasingly convinced that modern feminism means rigging the system against them. That road will not lead to harmonious workplaces or a indeed a harmonious society.)

Second, though, and much more importantly, the existence of this scheme shows a contemptuous attitude for the very idea that merit (much less the nowadays exotic concept of excellence) matters.

What does it mean to be an academic teaching law in a law school? Particularly in a senior position such as a Reader (equivalent to an Associate Professor and a step below being a full Chair). Such a person should at the very least be competent, shouldn't they? They should know their subject well. They should be a good public speaker and be able to display confidence (even if they don't feel it). They should be researching at the cutting edge of their discipline and be able to speak about it fluently. They should be able to put students at ease, but also exert rigour where required. They should, in other words, be good at what they do.

Put in a more blunt way, if I'm going to be paying somebody £63,000 per year to be a Reader in Law (or, put more accurately, if I'm going to appoint somebody who the students at my institution are going to be paying £63,000 per year to be a Reader in Law; or, more accurately still, if I'm going to appoint somebody who the taxpayer is going to be paying £63,000 per year to be a Reader in Law and hoping that the rate of student loan repayment goes up somewhat), that person had better be able to answer unexpected interview questions, think on his/her feet, and speak confidently to a roomful of strangers without pre-prepared notes. If they can't do those things, then I would have serious doubts about their ability to perform in their role competently. I certainly could not in good conscience appoint them, given that I would owe implicit obligations to students at my institution to appoint suitable staff, to my colleagues to appoint suitable team members, and to the taxpayers to use their money effectively.

Yet the idea that interview candidates should display merit seems to have gone out of the window. Instead, what this scheme indicates is that universities see it as their primary function to be inclusive.

I have no problem with inclusivity when it comes to learning - everybody with sufficient natural intelligence and dedication should have access to education (though I would still say that the primary function of the university should be to produce excellence). But when it comes to staff - particularly when it comes to staff who will be being paid almost twice the median salary in the country - inclusivity should come very far down the list. I don't think we want to live in a world in which somebody can be paid £63,000 a year of largely public money (only a small proportion of which will ultimately come from student loan repayments) without having gone through a rigorous interviewing process that puts their competence to the test. And this, I'm afraid, ought to mean that it is jolly difficult, and should be conducted as a proper interview and not a rehearsed presentation in response to questions made available in advance.

More broadly, we should view it as highly concerning that UK universities don't seem to understand that inclusivity and merit (or excellence) are basically incommensurate. If you pursue inclusivity to its extreme then you are including everyone irrespective of merit. And if you are pursuing merit to its extreme then you have to exclude people who do not have enough of it. This should be obvious to anyone with an ounce of common sense who thinks about matters for a minute or two. This is not to suggest for a moment that there are not unfair or unjust barriers that exclude those who would otherwise have merit. (That is indeed the entire basis of the liberal understanding of non-discrimination - it is wrong to exclude anybody from anything on the basis of a metric other than merit.) But merit and inclusivity at some point become mutually antagonistic goals.

Yet universities appear to wish to have their cake and distribute it equally to everybody. Look at the strategic statement of almost any institution of higher education in the land and you will see much braggadocio about excellence or words to that effect. (See, for example, Warwick's Excellence with Purpose, Durham's ongoing commitment to being a globally outstanding centre of teaching and research excellence, or Sussex - a university which describes itself as 'challenging convention' - and its striving for, er, 'excellence in everything we do'.) How does this sit alongside 'inclusive recruitment' processes which don't even require candidates to respond to unseen questions? I'll spoil the quiz for you: it doesn't, and it can't.

Perhaps most concerningly still, what kind of message does all this send to young people, and particularly prospective university students? Don't bother trying to be excellent - or even competent - because those things don't matter all that much in the grand scheme of things anyway. Coming after the Covid lockdowns, the implicit message of which for young people was 'education is optional and it doesn't really matter if you attend school or not', we need to consider carefully how much we unconsciously reinforce that kind of message across the board.