Making university admissions fairer

05 Nov 2009

University admissions has become a highly politicised and controversial issue. Just look at the fuss parts of the media, the political world and some parts of the independent school sector make whenever anyone talks about making admissions as much about spotting a student's potential as their A-level results.

 I have just spent the day at a conference on university admissions and have been impressed by what some top universities are doing to try to put A-level results (and other qualifications) into context in order to ensure that offering places on merit is as much about potential as past achievement. 

This is topical since Lord Mandelson's 'Higher Ambitions' paper this week said universities should look at contextual data (i.e. an applicant's school and home background) as well as at raw results. There were the usual predictable cries of 'social engineering'.

The conference heard examples of how contextual data can inform admissions decisions in a fair way and I shall be writing more about this in my BBC News Online column on Saturday. However what is clear is that there is no single way of using contextual data nor is there a perfect way.

However there is enough evidence to show that where students present themselves to admissions tutors with broadly similar exam results, those who have had to travel the tougher route to get there then go on to perform better when they get into university.

University entrance should be on merit (and it should be decided by university staff not by government) but merit should be about an applicant's ability to benefit most from the education offered not just about how well they have attained so far. 

User Comments

Johanna T-C - 09 Nov 2009

University admissions

Mike, your pieces on university admissions - such a thorny subject - are as ever lucid and thought provoking without being partisan.
As a comprehensive school student who didn't make my A Level grades, was allowed into Oxford (but not to Sheffield or indeed other universities with inflexible exam grade criteria) and went on to achieve a good degree, I believe I was taken on because of my potential. I agree that it doesn't always work out for people like me, and I was lucky to be given the opportunity. Nevertheless, it highlights how the question of merit requires a more nuanced debate.
You sum up the issue of "merit" extremely well, when other commentators seem to be losing their cool, either protesting that universities are elitest or that they are falling victim to social engineering. This is the most eloquent argument I have read so far: "merit should be about an applicant's ability to benefit most from the education offered not just about how well they have attained so far."
Thank you once again for offering such sane and measured commentary.

Johanna T - 20 Nov 2009

University Admissions

Mike, your pieces on university admissions - such a thorny subject - are as ever lucid and thought provoking without being partisan.
As a comprehensive school student who didn't make my A Level grades, was allowed into Oxford (but not to Sheffield or indeed other universities with inflexible exam grade criteria) and went on to achieve a good degree, I believe I was taken on because of my potential. I agree that it doesn't always work out for people like me, and I was lucky to be given the opportunity. Nevertheless, it highlights how the question of merit requires a more nuanced debate.
You sum up the issue of "merit" extremely well, when other commentators seem to be losing their cool, either protesting that universities are elitest or that they are falling victim to social engineering. This is the most eloquent argument I have read so far: "merit should be about an applicant's ability to benefit most from the education offered not just about how well they have attained so far."
Thank you once again for offering such sane and measured commentary.

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.