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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 September, 2003, 11:46 GMT 12:46 UK
Q&A: University admissions
A government task force, led by Professor Steven Schwartz, is looking into fairer ways for universities to select students. Among the considerations is whether universities should discriminate in favour of poorer students.

What's the problem that the task force is trying to solve?

The government wants more young people to go to university - and in particular it wants to attract more applications from youngsters from poorer families.

In the jargon, this has become known as "widening participation", and as part of this drive, the government has set up a task force to look at how universities select students.

Not unrelated is the plan to raise tuition fees to 3,000 per year - which universities say is vital to improve their funding. And as part of the funding deal, universities have been told they need to attract students from a more diverse range of social backgrounds.

Does this mean that universities will have to make it easier for poorer students to get places?

No. The task force has raised the subjects that it thinks need to be debated - most controversially the idea that universities should consider more than just applicants' academic ability.

But nothing has been decided and nothing has been recommended. The task force will not be reaching any conclusions until next year.

Even when recommendations are made, it will not be a "one-size-fits-all" requirement - and universities are likely to guard their independence over who they admit.

What are the options being raised by Professor Schwartz?

Professor Schwartz's task force has outlined the type of alternative ways that universities could weigh up applications - which would give a bigger picture of a students' potential.

Instead of just checking the predicted A-level grades, it could look at more background information about a candidate.

For instance, if a student has been to a school with a terrible exam record, then a forecast for two A grades might be considered more of an achievement than an independent school pupil who has been predicted to score three A grades.

Or else to get a more objective view of the ability of applicants there could be a separate aptitude test, of the type that are sometimes used in the United States.

Another approach would be to make the university application process after exam results are known - which it is said would make a fairer system than the current process based on predicted grades.

Another idea used in the United States is to take a set quota of pupils from schools - so that bright youngsters in inner city schools have a guaranteed route into university.

Would such "social engineering" be fair?

Professor Schwartz says he's asking such questions and not answering them. But he says that it's false to think that there is any neutral system, including the present one, that won't favour somebody.

He also says that it's a question of definitions. Everyone agrees that entry should be by "merit", but is there more merit in the person who struggles through a system against the odds - or in the high-flying candidate who has had all the advantages of an academically-successful school?

How else could the admissions system be improved?

The task force talks about the need for more "transparency" - which means that at the moment many students are unclear about what it takes to get accepted or why they have been rejected.

Many students will be accepted or rejected without an interview - and since there is little or no feedback, they might never know how they were being assessed.

There are also calls for greater "professionalism" in the process, perhaps with more full-time professional recruitment staff - rather than academics squeezing in interviews between their other work.

Will changing the university entry system really pull in more applications from poorer students?

The Conservatives have said that the real obstacle isn't the admissions system, but the prospect of paying tuition fees, which they say they will abolish if elected.

There are also claims that the "blockage" in getting more students into university isn't at the age of 17 and 18, but earlier in the education system.

In particular, they say that too many pupils drop out of education at the age of 16. And regardless of their social background, if youngsters stay at school long enough to get A-levels, they are likely to continue into higher education.

Out of all pupils who get two A-levels or more, 90% will have entered higher education by the time they reach the age of 21.

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21 May 03  |  Education
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23 Sep 03  |  Education
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23 Sep 03  |  Education

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