University entrance: tail wagging the dog?

17 Jun 2008 The Guardian

University must not be about privilege

Mike Baker argues that entrance examinations could lead to unfairness

Tuesday June 17, 2008
The Guardian

It's that old chestnut again: A-level results. Now we are told that so many students are getting three grade As that universities cannot choose between them and so must introduce their own entrance tests. Really?

If you repeat an untruth often enough, people will start to believe it. We are constantly told that grade inflation is so rampant that everyone gets an A grade. You would almost believe A-levels were being given away with breakfast cereal.

Yet how many people know what proportion of all 17- to 18-year-olds actually achieve three grade As at A-level? Test yourself, you may be surprised. Is it a) 25% b) 20% or c) 15%?

In fact, it's none of these. The answer is 4%. Yes, only 26,000 out of an age cohort of around 600,000 students achieve three grade As at A-level.

Moreover, from this September, A-levels are being reformed and a new A* grade is coming in for candidates achieving more than 90% in at least two units. It is estimated that only 3,000 students will get three A* grades. Put another way, that is 0.5% of the cohort.

So surely even Imperial College, which has announced it may introduce its own entrance tests because it can no longer rely on A-levels, will be able to discriminate on the basis of an examination system that can filter out the top performing 0.5%? After all, even if every student with three grade A*s applied to Imperial, that would only be about two applicants for each full-time undergraduate place.

If this habit of lamenting grade inflation continues, will some universities call for an A** grade? More worrying, will A-levels become an irrelevance for students aiming for the most selective university courses?

Do we really want to be like the US, where drilling for the SAT, the test used for university admissions, dominates the final years of high school?

It all seems a case of the tail wagging the dog. Why reform qualifications taken by the broad sweep of young people on the basis of their value as a selection filter for a small number of top universities?

These are worrying times for anyone concerned about fair admissions to universities. The latest figures show that top universities are failing to increase their intake from state schools or from lower socio-economic families.

The spread of individual university entrance exams, the arrival of the A*, and the proliferation of new qualifications could make this a very uneven playing field. Some schools will respond to the A* by offering specific teaching and coaching aimed at that level. For others, it will realistically not be on the agenda for most of their students. So some students will get lots of advice and help, others very little. Similarly, if university entrance tests proliferate, some schools will offer specific preparation for them. We will be returning to the days when some schools encouraged pupils back after A-levels for the so-called "seventh term" entrance exam for Oxbridge.

I remember those days at my selective state school. For a term we had one-to-one tuition, backed up by excellent library and learning facilities. Unlike some schools, which sent busloads to Oxbridge each year, my school sent only a handful. But even we had a huge advantage over others at schools with no tradition of preparation for these specialised exams.

In an enlightened move, Oxford and Cambridge dropped these general entrance exams. Now, though, we are seeing their return for subjects such as law and medicine. If the Imperial proposal goes ahead, this would be the first general entrance test since Oxford abolished its equivalent in 1995.

This matters. Not because people want to enforce quotas in university admissions. This is not about social engineering. It is about not wasting potential.

The best universities should be for the brightest students, not those students who have received the best preparation.,,2285812,00.html

User Comments

David - 01 Jul 2008

University Tests

The best universities should be for the students best able to benefit and most keen to do so - some degree of motivation matters, and "brightness" is not purely about exam results.

Also we need to differentiate two ideas that are too often not clearly divided:

1) that applicants with more or less specific preparation may need to be evaluated accordingly (of course) vs.

2) that universities can somehow counter 18 years of schooling and parenting to reveal a diamond in the rough who will flower at a high-pressure university (not often, if ever)

My understanding is that Imperial is looking to use an aptitude test not subject exams - and properly designed there is a limited amount of preparation that can be done.

If you are still concerned then Imperial or others would no doubt oblige with a some preparatory classes or materials explaining the test and giving practice questions.

I would like to see your positive recommendation for a fair admissions system to elite universities - and I don't mean one that is socially discriminatory in either direction.

Post a comment

After posting your comment you will need to confirm it by checking your email and clicking the confirmation that will be sent to you.

Comments will appear once reviewed for appropriate content.