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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 September, 2003, 15:34 GMT 16:34 UK
Universities seek 'fairer' admissions
Students
The government wants to widen access to higher education
University admissions systems could take into account social disadvantages and the type of school a student attended.

Professor Steven Schwartz, who is heading an inquiry into entry into higher education, says that universities might look at more than an applicant's academic ability - encouraging a wider range of students to apply.

And he rejected accusations that an admissions system which would allow the government's target for 50% of young people to go to university meant lowering standards.

"Many people have ambitions for their children - and to dismiss the legitimate ambitions of working class families in that cavalier manner is a very negative view of the future."

Almost everyone would agree that admission decisions should be based on merit - the problem arises when we try to define merit
Steven Schwartz, head of admissions task force

The Admissions to Higher Education Steering Group, set up by the government and led by Professor Schwartz, wants to start a national debate about how entry to higher education could be "fair and unbiased".

So far the admissions task force is presenting options and inviting responses, rather than making recommendations - with the final report to be delivered next year.

But Professor Schwartz has outlined some of the big questions facing the higher education system - including whether entrance systems should be shaped around a political desire to have a wider social intake.

This could include aptitude tests to find more about students' abilities than their school qualifications - and it raises the prospect of weighting applications in favour of youngsters from deprived areas.

And it could mean quota systems, such as used in the United States, to deliberately to achieve a more socially balanced intake of students.

'Transparency'

Professor Schwartz's committee is also attempting to find ways for greater transparency in how admissions are decided - particularly for courses where large numbers of equally well-qualified students are applying for a limited number of places.

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At present, it has been claimed that students often have little clear idea why their applications have been accepted or rejected.

And he raises the prospect that universities need to have a more professional approach to how they determine admissions - including paying for separate admissions staff, rather than using academics.

But the most controversial of the areas under consideration will be the suggestion that admissions should discriminate in favour of poorer students.

And although making no recommendations, Professor Schwartz says that this is already happening in other parts of the world.

He points to systems in the United States that take into account the economic background of students, where "merit is measured not only by where one stands, but by how far one had to go to get there".

'Diversity'

There are US states, such as Texas, which guarantee a university place for the top students in every high school - so that talented students from every type of school have access to higher education, including those in the most deprived areas.

This can be a tacit way of ensuring a racial, as well as a social mix.

The University of California has an admissions policy which aims to create an intake with a "broad diversity of backgrounds".

This means considering a wide range of factors, including aptitude tests, personal achievements, the overcoming of "challenges" and where the applicant went to school.

Should a wider range of students be making it to higher education?

Professor Schwartz rebuffs accusations of "social engineering", saying that there is no neutral system which has been "created by mother nature" - and that any entry process, including the present one, will have consequences for different types of applicants.

"Almost everyone would agree that admission decisions should be based on merit. The problem arises when we try to define merit.

"Merit could mean admitting students with the highest marks or it could take into account the obstacles that a student had to overcome," he says.

Independent schools have resisted suggestions that applications should be weighted to consider social and academic advantages - fearing it will discriminate against their pupils.

Professor Schwartz says that the task force is looking to establish principles for best practice - and that it is not about imposing a single system for all universities.

This readiness to allow universities to have their own separate admissions systems was welcomed by vice-chancellors.

Universities UK, representing university chiefs, said "admissions rightly are, and should remain, a matter for individual institutions".

The Conservatives' education spokesperson, Damian Green, said that the best approach to opening access to higher education was to scrap tuition fees.

Young people from poorer families were put off from applying to university because they did not want to be "saddled with debt for half their lives".




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