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Friday, 12 April, 2002, 16:33 GMT 17:33 UK
Call to lower grades for university
exams
A-levels: Not the only way, says minister
Universities should consider lowering their A-level requirements for students from working-class backgrounds, a government minister said.

Margaret Hodge, the Minister for Higher Education, said many universities were "woefully lacking" in encouraging applications from young people from backgrounds without a history of going to college.

Margaret Hodge
Mrs Hodge says universities must find "more sophisticated" ways of selecting students
Speaking at a seminar at the Social Market Foundation think-tank in London, Mrs Hodge suggested that A-levels - traditionally the "gold standard" of the education system - were poor at measuring a student's potential.

The minister praised a scheme run by the history department at Bristol University where the average A-level score for the school was taken into account before a place was awarded.

If a state school pupil had significantly outperformed their predecessors, they were awarded places even if they had "far lower A-level qualifications" than Bristol had accepted in the past, the minister said.

'Sophisticated' selection

Universities had to find more sophisticated ways of finding the best students, she said.

"Of course A-levels are important, but what is a big concern is that there is increasing evidence around that they aren't necessarily the only way to measure potential," said Mrs Hodge.

The government was determined that more working-class youngsters should get the benefit of going into higher education - including an average of 400,000 extra in terms of salary over a lifetime - she said.

The target of 50% of all people under the age of 30 entering higher education by 2010 was not a matter of political correctness, but vital for the future of the economy.

Considering all aspects

Tim Cole, an admissions tutor for Bristol University's history department, denied suggestions that pupils from private schools were losing out under its selection scheme.

"It's not positive discrimination by any means, it is trying to do what I think admissions policy should be about, which is taking all the information on board," he said.

"Every year, we've turned down students who are predicted great A-level results because their personal statements showed that maybe they are not that motivated."

'Defeatist'

The Shadow Minister for Higher Education, Alistair Burt, said it was wrong to repeatedly blame universities for not broadening the social mix of their intakes.

"Universities should assess the potential of students in a variety of ways, and many are already doing so, but accepting that lower grades from state schools as inevitable as the government seems to advocate, is defeatist and patronising," said Mr Burt.

Liberal Democrat Higher Education Spokesman David Rendel said the government was right to look at ways of widening participation.

But he warned: "It is not good enough for ministers to use warm words as a substitute for concrete reform."

"Nor should widening participation be equated with lowering standards."

Mrs Hodge's comments on selection came as the latest figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) showed a rise in the number of people applying for university places.

Ucas says the number of people who applied to do a degree or other higher education course by late March was up 5,625 on last year to 378,886.


Talking PointTALKING POINT
Less elitism
More college places for the working classes?
See also:

29 Jun 01 | Mike Baker
Breaking with Oxbridge elitism
22 Oct 01 | Education
Universities ordered to widen access
20 Nov 00 | Scotland
New drive against elitism
17 Jul 01 | Education
Oxford was right, says Laura
04 Jun 00 | UK Politics
Labour widens attack on elitism
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