What is fair in university admissions?

03 Oct 2008 BBC News Online

Universities want to open doors

Mike Baker
Social engineering or fair play? How should universities select applicants?
The announcement this week of a scheme for nine top universities to seek out the best talent from schools in deprived areas ruffled a few feathers.


Yet it seemed inoffensive. The universities will retain their autonomy over selection but have agreed to share information about able candidates who have been on their access taster courses.

They also agreed to use a wider variety of methods than just exam results to assess individual talent.

Yet this prompted the High Master of St. Paul's school, Dr Martin Stephen, to tell the Daily Mail that this was "a charter for bad schools - they don't have to worry about putting extra into teaching the most able because they can get them in through the back door".

Assuming it was fairly reported, this struck me as a curious response.

It seemed to assume that the initiative was all about helping schools to guard their reputation rather than about helping individual pupils to get into a good university.

It seemed to insult the universities involved by saying they were complicit in a scheme to admit undeserving students "through the back door".

And it appeared to insult teachers in schools in deprived areas by suggesting they were looking for any excuse to avoid making the extra effort to stretch their brightest pupils.

School competition

In short, it suggested a perspective on university admissions that sees the process as fundamentally a competition between schools rather than as a filter to select those young people best suited to the courses.

University entrance
Nine universities are linking to find ways to widen access

St. Paul's is a highly selective, independent school, with "superb facilities", to quote its website, on a 45-acre site by the Thames. It charges day pupils £16,500 a year.

The prospectus highlights the fact that it sent 60 pupils to Oxford or Cambridge last year, with most of the rest of its leavers going to Russell Group universities.

In short, it is very good at what it sets out to do, including offering "support for university entrance... by an experienced team of specialist advisers".

As all this suggests, there is intense competition between leading independent schools to get the maximum number of places at Oxford, Cambridge and other top universities.

It is their unique selling point.

That is fair enough. It is meeting a demand from parents and it is providing stretch to bright pupils - although it is important to say that there are also many independent schools whose educational focus is spread across the full spectrum of abilities, including special needs.


But why should leading independent schools, like St. Paul's, feel so threatened and hostile to a scheme to encourage bright pupils from poor homes to get into good universities?

They may deny this hostility and suspicion. And, in many ways, it does seem ludicrous that top independent schools, with all their advantages, should feel threatened by any of this. But some do appear to be nervous about it.

It is a topic that frequently comes up when you talk to independent school heads. Indeed, it burst into the open a while back when they threatened to boycott Bristol University because they suspected its admissions scheme was favouring pupils from poorly performing schools.

Now, if universities were proposing to take students from deprived areas as an act of charity, then the critics would be right to complain. Universities are not a social service; they are about picking the brightest students.

The scheme announced this week is not proposing to take less able students from poor areas instead of brighter students from privileged homes.

It is simply saying that these universities will, using their own methods, look at different ways of assessing applicants. And this could include something more sophisticated than simply looking at A-level grades.

Social engineering

So, to quote the announcement, universities could consider "a student's performance on taster sessions, time spent with tutors, interviews or set work".

It also said they would pool information on students who have come through their access to university schemes. Is that so awful? It is not saying they will give preference in admissions to students from poor areas. It is not even saying they will take into account the future potential of students. It is simply giving them different opportunities to show the quality of their minds.

The great cry of complaint when these issues come up is always that the government, or universities, are indulging in "social engineering".

But no university is going to choose students it thinks will fail its courses in preference to those who will thrive.

But some might well argue that home and school backgrounds do not provide a level playing-field when it comes to school examinations, so something more discriminating is needed to determine who is the most likely to do well.

Social mobility

Employers do something similar when selecting applicants. They look at the whole person. So why shouldn't universities?

To deny the link between disadvantage and educational underperformance is to fly in the face of the evidence.

There is cross-party support for it. The Conservative party's schools policy says this: "Schools should exist to reverse inequality, to advance social mobility, to give individuals of talent, whatever their background, the chance to shine."

Substitute the word "universities" for "schools" and this is precisely what this scheme is trying to do.

Those who hate it will call it social engineering. Others will see it as education giving ability its head to advance social mobility.

And the reality is that this is not happening. Less than one-fifth of children from the poorest 25% of families go to university.

Is anyone really suggesting that this figure is so low because all of the remaining four-fifths are dim?

Much more likely reasons are that bright pupils in deprived areas lack the "superb facilities", small class sizes, and specialist university advisers enjoyed by pupils at St. Paul's.

They are also less likely to have books and computers at home. And they may often lack the self-confidence that comes from supportive and successful parents.

To give these young people extra opportunities to show they have the ability to thrive at university seems both fair to them as individuals and a sensible way to nurture the nation's young talent.


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