By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Online
Steven Schwartz wants a more professional approach to admissions
Lanky, tanned, stubbly and with a hint of an Australian accent, Steven Schwartz could pass for a former fast bowler rather than an academic.
But this university vice-chancellor will spend his summer on a different type of sticky wicket, as he begins to tackle the thorny question of university admissions.
Professor Schwartz, vice-chancellor at Brunel University, has been asked by the education secretary to produce a report into how universities could improve their selection processes.
Although he says he is beginning with an open mind, he already has clear opinions about the key issues. Tuition fees are not a deterrent to poorer students, he says, and he attacks Conservative plans to scrap them as "pathetic".
And he wants to look at universities around the world to find bolder ways of widening intake, such as building schools within university campuses - and he says British universities should consider how other countries reserve places for specific under-represented groups.
University admissions has become a subject that inflames strong feelings and strident headlines.
While there are demands for the "elitist" entry systems of top universities to be changed, there are other traditionalists who attack any intervention as a step towards quota systems and "social engineering".
As he begins to navigate his way through this argument, Professor Schwartz wants to establish the key questions that universities need to answer about how they select students.
These can be big questions, such as what kind of "fair" system do we want? Is the aim to produce a "fair" intake that reflects wider society, or do we want a fair intake that gives places to the most able?
The Laura Spence case drew claims of Oxbridge prejudice against state school pupils
He raises fundamental questions about how universities see their own purposes. Is it their task to serve the community, or is it only to serve themselves and to provide academic opportunities for the best students?
On a more practical level, he says that universities need to look at the "professionalism" of their admissions processes. And they should consider whether a more standardised form of interviewing would produce a more transparent system.
At present, he says that the complexities and variety of local practices can make the whole admissions system a mystery for too many young people, with both the accepted and the rejected often unclear of how the decisions about them were reached.
The trigger for the examination of admissions procedures is the government's ambition to widen participation in higher education, particularly among young people from less well-off families.
Tuition fees have often been cited as a deterrent for poorer students considering applying for university - and student unions have welcomed the conversion of the Conservatives to scrapping fees.
Independent schools have complained about admissions being "rigged" against their pupils
But Professor Schwartz is unreservedly scathing about the Conservatives' proposals - saying that cutting the funding from fees would mean the closure of seven or eight universities. He describes their policy as "among the most irresponsible I've ever heard" and "absolutely pathetic".
He also rejects that fees in general might have an adverse affect on applications from less well-off families, saying that there is no international evidence to suggest that.
Where there is a problem, he says, is the longstanding difficulty in attracting the interest of young people from working class families who have never considered higher education as an option.
This can be a question of "aspiration" rather than economics - and he looks to how other countries have addressed this question of broadening the intake of students.
Finding a balance
In the United States, where he was born and began his academic career, a basic difference is that students are admitted to the university rather than an individual course.
As such, within the large numbers of a year group, it is much easier to seek a representative intake, recruiting students from a variety of different backgrounds.
But in British universities, where small groups are admitted to a course, achieving a balanced intake is much more difficult - and potentially much more divisive.
In parts of the United States, universities have sought a more balanced racial intake by offering places to a fixed quota of the best pupils from each high school within the state.
But this depends on a school system which has a strong element of segregation, where it can be assumed that almost all pupils at a school will be from the same ethnic group.
Professor Schwartz says that he will also draw on his own experience in Australia, where he worked in higher education for over 20 years, becoming vice-chancellor of Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia.
In Australia, he took part in efforts to attract more working class students into university, and he says that what motivated people to take the initial step across the threshold was the offering of relevant services - such as childcare, welfare advice and libraries.
In another Australian scheme, when there was a shortage of rural doctors, there were places reserved in university for rural applicants - with the aim of using the admission system to address a practical need.
He also wants to see schools set up on university campuses, so that pupils would have an early familiarity with higher education.
But he is not particularly impressed by the target of 50% of young people entering higher education by the end of the decade - saying that "it's a bit of a side-show".
Instead he says that we should be moving to "near universal" participation in higher education, with the demands of the economy for graduates far exceeding the 50% mark.
There are other factors affecting recruitment which stretch beyond the university system. For example, allowing students to have their exam results before they apply would be likely to make the application system more clear-cut, he says.
Students would know which courses would be accessible with their points score - and this would mean fewer speculative applications. But he also says that this would mean universities would have less of a grey area in which to exercise "discretion".
"It's easier for many bureaucracies not to be transparent. But if we know what they're doing, at least there can be a public debate," he says.
This autumn should see the publication of a document inviting a public debate and feedback about admissions, with a report expected in draft form early in 2004.
And it is expected that universities wanting to increase their tuition fees will have to show the Office for Fair Access that they have applied the principles established by Professor Schwartz's work - in areas such as transparency and professional decision-making.