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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 September, 2003, 14:42 GMT 15:42 UK
Students told to cast net wider
Essex uni scene
Anyone for Essex?
Peer pressure and "transient popularity" are leading to a glut of applications to a few universities by pupils from independent schools.

The result can be a relatively high rejection rate - and the perception that students are overlooked because they have been to fee-paying schools.

Students are being told to be more choosy - perhaps going to Essex to study economics rather than the LSE.

These are among the findings of a survey of 280 independent schools.

The survey was responded to by some 62% of schools in the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC) and the Girls' Schools' Association (GSA).


The survey is bigger than the one last year which gave rise to charges of discrimination against some universities.

This year's report, by the head master of Bedford School, Philip Evans, says there was less evidence of this in 2003.

But it says schools should encourage their sixth formers to look more widely for the best and most appropriate choice of university course.

Dr Evans said the attraction of some universities may be exacerbating the problem, with highly-rated departments at other universities receiving fewer applications than they should.

"Student choice has a great deal to do with peer group acceptability and anecdote, though it must be conceded that many of the very popular choices do tie into more objective measures of the quality of the course at a particular university," the report said.

But it was also true that highly-rated courses at some universities appeared to be less popular than they deserved to be on the basis of official quality audits and research ratings.

"It is strongly arguable that student choice needs to be more careful, focusing on more than peer-group reputation and transient popularity."

Careful research would "optimise the chance of an offer" and "ensure that a few apparent key players do not remain so congested with applicants that interviewing becomes impossible".

It argues that interviewing is a good way of discriminating between candidates with similarly good academic qualifications.

Universities such as Bristol - which bore the brunt of the independent schools' wrath last year - have said some of their courses are so overwhelmed with applicants they cannot possibly see everyone.

Dr Evans's report looked only at offers and rejection rates in the top-ranking 30 universities, in biology, chemistry, computer science, economics, English, French, geography, history, law, mathematics, physics, physiotherapy and psychology.

His data reinforce his argument that prospective students should pay more attention to assessments of university courses by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA).

Essex vs LSE

In economics, for example, Oxford and Cambridge had the highest rejection rate, of about 78%, as well as the highest offers (equivalent to grades AAB+).

Bristol's rejection rate rose to 64.1% on an average offer of AAB; the London School of Economics rejected 66% on typical ABB offers.

Dr Evans contrasts this with University College London with its AAB+ offer but a rejection rate of 27.2%.

"Given UCL's QAA top-score rating in the 2000/1 survey of economics departments, it is an attractive choice for high ability students, as is Bath (again top-rated) with an offer of AAB and a rejection rate of 35.9%, relatively low in context," he said.

Essex's top-rating is "especially impressive", with an average offer of BBC and a rejection rate of just 9.5%.

In another popular subject, psychology, QAA audits gave top ratings to six universities also included in this survey: Lancaster, Newcastle, Nottingham, Oxford, Reading and York.

Lancaster made an average offer of C+CC and rejected nobody.

"The need for adequate student research in choosing an institution in this subject is clear," Dr Evans said.

A-level grading system

He also repeats the view report that the current A-level grading system is "insufficiently discriminating" - with up to a third of candidates in some subjects achieving a grade A.

In its inability to discriminate between such candidates the A-level was "no longer fit for purpose".

He advocated a new, six-point scale and a tightening up of exam questions that would better challenge the most able students.

And he echoes the widespread worry about the shortage of people graduating in and going on to teach certain subjects, especially mathematics.

"Given the crucial place the subject holds in the school curriculum the shortage of qualified teachers in this subject is of great concern," the report said.

Private schools 'boycott' Bristol
04 Mar 03  |  Education
Clarke attacks Bristol 'boycott'
05 Mar 03  |  Education
How can universities choose?
08 Mar 03  |  Education
Bristol denies admissions bias
26 Feb 03  |  Education
University aims to be less elitist
20 Feb 03  |  Scotland

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