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Last Updated: Saturday, 17 March 2007, 03:12 GMT
Will universities exclude middle classes?
By Mike Baker
Education correspondent, BBC News

Mike Baker
Picture the scene: the crumpets are toasting gently over the fire, the college butler is serving tea from the silver tray, bicycle clips and gowns have been removed, and the admissions tutors are settled in their deep leather armchairs, choosing next year's student intake.

As they sift through the piles of Ucas admissions forms, there is suddenly a triumphant shout from behind one tottering tower of papers. A don emerges, holding aloft an application form.

"Eureka! I've found one. Yes, a student from a state school, whose parents both left school at 16 and are now unemployed. And he is from an ethnic minority.

"What's more he was even placed in care for a few years while his parents were treated for drug addiction."

"Yes, but what were his A-level grades?" asks one of his colleagues, peering suspiciously over his bifocals.

"One E," comes the response.

"Oh well, let's offer him a place and a bursary, and do it quickly before the other universities grab him. Think what it'll do for our widening participation benchmarks."

Which admissions tutor would choose an inadequately qualified student just because it ticked a box on widening participation?

Ludicrous? Well, of course it is. And it's not going to happen.

Yet judging from some of the comments about this week's announcement about changes to university admissions, this is the sort of scenario conjured up by some parts of the media.

Certain newspapers, fond of frightening their school fee-paying readership, went to town over the announcement that university application forms will, from 2008, include optional questions asking whether applicants' parents have a university degree.

In future universities will be given this information - alongside details of parental occupation, ethnic background and whether or not applicants have been in care - ahead of the admissions process not, as now, after it is completed.

"University squeeze on children of graduates", said one newspaper.

Another warned of the "extra hurdles" being put in the way of the sons and daughters of graduates.

The Daily Telegraph's editorial commented ominously about "the creation of quotas" and of the middle-classes becoming the new "whipping boys".

Overcoming adversity

Is that really true? Are we seriously to believe that a university will accept students onto courses if admissions tutors doubt they could complete their studies?

A higher drop-out rate looks bad for any university, however broad its intake.

Yes, some do have high drop-out rates, but not because they are deliberately rejecting better qualified middle-class students.

You might argue that some students are going to university when, really, they should not be. But that is a different matter.

The point is they are not displacing middle-class students - almost all of whom go to university if they achieve at least 2 A Levels.

Moreover, academics want to teach the brightest students, wherever they come from. They would be daft not to.

Which admissions tutor would choose an inadequately qualified student just because it ticked a box on widening participation?

I know journalists are supposed to believe in conspiracy theories. But, really, this seems a very unlikely one.

Perhaps some extra information will help create a more rounded picture of the applicant

So, let's get this in perspective. A university is not going to pass over a middle-class applicant with three grade Bs in favour of an applicant from a less advantaged home with three grade Cs.

Indeed several universities have already said they will take no notice whatsoever of the data before they allocate places.

However, those with concerns about this change are entitled to a clearer explanation of why it is being done.

And here, it has to be said, the universities have not been as clear as they might have been.

No doubt, this was because they feared the inevitable response to anything they do in this sphere.

It is also partly because the admission process is still too cloaked in mystery.

My elder daughter recently went through the process. Her top two choices were for almost identical courses at two universities with very similar reputations.

She received a good offer from one and an outright rejection from the other. Both made their decisions entirely on the basis of the Ucas form. There were no interviews or admissions tests.

Determination

She was given no explanation for the rejection. Was it a lottery? Did they simply chuck out alternate applications?

The problem for universities today is that most of them do not interview candidates. They see only exam grades, a head teacher's report, and a personal statement.

That is not a very rounded picture. Nor is it a very level playing field: some schools and some parents provide more help and coaching with personal statements than others. So, on this basis, perhaps some extra information will help create a more rounded picture of the applicant.

And if two candidates emerge with identical grades and similarly effusive head teachers' recommendations, how is the poor admissions tutor to decide between them?

Suppose candidate A is from an inner city "sink" school and is the child of recently arrived, poorly educated immigrants who speak no English at home.

Coaching

And suppose candidate B came from a high-performing school and has parents who are graduates.

Which would you say had probably (and hold on to that "probably") showed the greater determination and drive to get to the grades they achieved?

More often than not it would, probably, be applicant A.

However, things may not be all that they seem on paper.

The middle-class student may have been ill, may have a special educational need, or may have endured a broken and unsupportive home.

They may in fact have had to show the greater drive and resilience.

'Rounded picture'

The point is this: to make a fair decision between applicants, universities need as much information as possible. They do not need data to be withheld or constrained.

Ideally, they should interview all applicants. Or if that is impractical, they should at least interview all short-listed candidates.

I would trust experienced university staff to be able to see past the effects of either coaching or nervousness and uncertainty.

Universities want the best applicants. Yes, grades will be a very important guide, almost certainly the most important guide.

But the more information they have about a candidate, the more they can develop a rounded picture of them and make a surer judgement of their suitability for university.

'Finely balanced'

Any university that passes over the candidate with the most potential would be working against its own interests.

It is hard to see what all this fear is about. And I can speak personally.

My younger daughter will be applying for university in 2008. I am a graduate.

There are books and computers in the house. She attends a state school where results are comfortably above the national average. No one in the family has suffered any major illnesses.

If she is beaten to a place by someone else, with identical grades, but who had overcome greater adversity - be it a matter of social class, ethnicity, schooling, special needs, illness, family break-up, or poverty - I could not regard that as unfair.

These are the scenarios we are looking at in the business of choosing future students: finely balanced, individual judgements not mass social engineering.

Let's calm down a bit.




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