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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 November, 2004, 15:42 GMT
'Toss a coin' to choose students
Prof Steven Schwartz
Steven Schwartz was critical of current practice
Universities might as well toss a coin as interview prospective students, the head of an admissions inquiry told MPs.

Professor Steven Schwartz told the Commons education select committee many interviews were unstructured chats.

"These are the type of interviews that take place at some of our most ancient universities and the reliability of these interviews is zero," he said.

His government-commissioned working party called for a fairer and more

"transparent" process.

He said auditions, in which a panel observed candidates perform the same piece of work, and structured interviews, in which all students were asked the same questions, had some value.

They have got thousands of students with straight As and they could flip a coin, but no-one would like that, so they do the interviews
Prof Schwartz

An American university which had selected half of a group of equally-qualified students by interview and chose the rest at random had found after a year that it was impossible to distinguish between their results.

Many admissions tutors claimed their own records showed they were able to pick out high-fliers, said Prof Schwartz. But this was "an illusion".

"They have got thousands of students with straight As and they could flip a coin, but no-one would like that, so they do the interviews," he said.

"To me, it is the same as flipping a coin. I don't think they should continue to do it."

He called for the appointment of properly-trained admissions tutors at all universities.

At present, too many regarded the job as a low priority and admissions tutors were simply "the people who run slowest when the dean comes asking for volunteers", he said.

Offa role queried

His admissions working party, which published its final report in September, called for greater "transparency" over admissions policies.

It said too many decisions were made on unreliable information, such as schools' forecasts of A-level grades or "impressionistic" interviews, he said.

Answering the MPs' questions as they conduct their own inquiry into the issue, Prof Schwartz questioned the remit given to the new access regulator, Sir Martin Harris, director of the Office for Fair Access (Offa).

He said Sir Martin appeared to have control over little more than the proportion of top-up fees to be used in bursaries for poorer students.

He also repeated his call for universities to delay offering places until after A-level results were announced.

This remark smacks strongly of the government's agenda to discredit university admissions tutors
Conservative spokesman Tim Collins
At present, offers are made on the basis of predicted grades, but in practice about half of predictions are wrong, he told the committee.

So about 3,000 students missed out on courses they might have been able to do because their schools had under-estimated their likely results.

The government has said it agrees that there should be such a "post qualification applications" or PQA system.

It has asked its director general for higher education, Sir Alan Wilson, to lead the work on implementing this.

The shadow education secretary, Tim Collins, said later that universities which did interview applicants would be greatly insulted by the suggestion that this was "no better than tossing a coin".

"This remark smacks strongly of the government's agenda to discredit university admissions tutors in order to justify the creation of a state regulator to take these decisions for them," he said.

"The problem is that nearly one in four of all A-level students get undifferentiated A grades."

The answer was not to insult or sideline admissions tutors but give them more information - the raw marks for each paper and, under Conservative plans, the knowledge that A grades would be awarded only to the top 5 or 10% of students taking a particular subject each year.




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