Jonty Taylor

In the Netflix documentary Operation Varsity Blues, released last week, we see how the rich kids of America are bought places at top unis by their parents. Watching them pay millions of dollars to trick colleges with photoshopped water-polo snapshots could have been funny, if it didn’t expose the extreme power of privilege. But, unfortunately, this college admissions scandal highlights something that runs far deeper than the bribes and backroom deals of the rich and famous of America: it’s a Hollywood caricature of a fundamental problem in education systems today – that opportunities aren’t won, but bought.

A revealing scene in the documentary shows a young person saying: “This is America. Like, you got money? Best believe you have access to certain spaces that other kids don’t have.” This not only sums up the whole 100 minute documentary in less than fifteen seconds, but it sums up the myth of merit at the heart of education. There is no doubt that an unlevel playing field exists for young people today and sadly it’s not just a story of the American Dream gone wrong, it’s the same in the UK, too.

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While we don’t have Tesla driving “college counsellors,” like the documentary’s Rick Singer, dropping off fat cheques at universities across the country, we instead have pricey tutors, the postcode lottery, and private schools. The unequal start to life for young people in Britain is well documented. From Marcus Rashford’s recent campaign on free school meals to the class bias of the government’s A-Level grading algorithm last August, the system is consistently shown to be stacked in the favour of the affluent. So, what does the seemingly unique and outlandish case of bribery, corruption, and conspiracy in Operation Varsity Blues add to this discussion? The short answer is, a lot.

Rick Singer’s scam exploits any and every way that money can be used to gain access to the top colleges in the US. Since no tactic is off-limits to him, his master plan highlights many, often overlooked, ways that privilege operates in the education system. In particular, his willingness to use money to manipulate the provisions in place for people with learning disabilities should make us think about the relationship between socio-economic background, diagnosis and support.

In the UK, receiving support and exam adjustments for a learning disability rests on providing an exam-board or university with a certified medical report which can cost between £300 to £500. The high cost prices out many who need the access arrangements that they provide, and dissuades those who are hesitant to take the test – people, like myself, who have learning disabilities such as dyslexia, or dyspraxia, who can often slip under the radar. Different stages of education also detail different requirements for these medical reports, and time-limits on their validity, forcing students and their families to continuously reach into their pockets for another £300, and another, endlessly.

This, I think, is an often-untold aspect of educational inequality, of how access to diagnosis and support for learning disabilities is determined by the ability of families to pay, rather than the needs of the young person concerned. In another scene, Rick Singer is caught on a phone call detailing the connection between the wealthy and learning disability diagnosis. In a statement that exposes the greater ability of the rich to pay for testing compared to others, we are left thinking whether he is highlighting something that we should be more aware of here, in the UK:

“What happened is, all the wealthy families figured out, ‘If I get my kid tested and they get extended time, they can do better on the test.’”…”the playing field’s not fair.”

The documentary also sheds light on the effect of the illusion of the prestige of “top” universities. The reason these parents are willing to hand over so much money, in such a sketchy way, is because they care about the prestige that comes with their child attending these schools. It may seem to us that the difference between USC or UCLA, between Northwestern University or Northeastern University, isn’t worth a million-dollar bribe – but rather just a matter of miles or a slightly different acronym. But the perceived prestige that comes with some universities is the motivation for these parents to bribe and conspire for their kid’s admission. This prestige is, however, completely constructed. And it exists in the UK, too.

One of the interviewees in the documentary explains how “it’s typically accepted that Ivy League institutions are the “best” in the country, but all those differences have almost nothing to do with the academics of the institution.” Just as the U.S. has the Ivy League, the UK has the Russell Group. Neither of these groups started because of the merit of their members in providing a good education. The Russell Group, in particular, only started as a group of universities whose main aim was to collectively lobby government policy, but it has somehow, now, become a symbol of the “better” unis in the UK.

Beyond the pressure put on young people by this construction of prestige, to achieve grades that will get them into uni, I feel there are more implications of this. It creates spaces at university that allow for this prestige to boost the feeling of power that many, who are already privileged enough to attend, have. Questions must be asked as to how this contributes to creating spaces where people are proposing competitions to have sex with the poorest student they can find. If changing the way we rank unis, and the social status that comes with this, could contribute to making it a more equal and open space, then we need to do something about it.

The story of Operation Varsity Blues is about more than just a case of bribery and deceit in America. It is about the immense power and effect of privilege on both sides of the Atlantic, and how its reach extends to all corners of the education system. The scandal sheds light on many overlooked aspects of university culture from access to learning disability diagnosis and support, to the illusion of prestige and its effect on the university space. The scam of Rick Singer and his cronies is just one example of a problem that exists throughout education and society.

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Last Update: March 26, 2021