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Monday, November 15, 1999 Published at 07:41 GMT


University access for all

Brian Roper, vice-chancellor of the University of North London, is a passionate supporter of broadening access to higher education. Here he explains why.

Some academics believe that universities should base their selection of students solely on demonstrated academic excellence, using A-level scores as an indicator, with no regard to background or social circumstances.

This cannot go unchallenged. Firstly, where one goes to school plays a major role in A-level grades - or in some cases whether or not studying for A-levels is even considered. This particular "playing field" is unlikely to be level for many years.

The University of North London is proud of its reputation for offering higher education to students from all walks of life and for being a proponent of widened participation.

Like many other forward-thinking universities, we do not see A-levels as the "golden currency" with which one can "buy"' a place at university.

We have consistently and repeatedly seen excellent results from students who have entered our university with no formal academic qualifications or modest A-level scores, yet with active support and guidance they have achieved excellent degrees and successful careers.

Should these students have missed out on an education simply because they did not meet the A-level test?

It would appear that proponents of such arguments would like us to return to a time when only the privileged were lucky enough to receive a university education.

I am only grateful that the majority of academics do not share this view.

'A-levels can be coached'

A-levels are notoriously poor predictors of eventual degree level performance. Research shows a poor correlation between A-level grades and final degree classifications.

Many degree subjects have no A-level correspondent, in particular, many of the most exciting and relevant developments in the undergraduate curriculum are multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary studies and for these there is little correspondence in the A-level syllabi.

This would not be a problem were A-levels a measure of intelligence, ability or aptitude, rather than - as it is - just a test of culturally determined knowledge and precepts.

A-levels can be coached. If this were not true, would private schools and crammer academies be able to charge such high fees?

The "message" of those who believe universities should base their selection of students solely on demonstrated academic excellence is reductionist and backward-looking.

It is in principle the same as arguments for and, indeed, would take us back to, a 5% participation rate and examinations in Latin.

What is needed are more refined instruments for selection on the basis of aptitude and ability to benefit, irrespective of previous educational and social experience, and not on the basis of accumulated cultural baggage.

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