Page last updated at 01:14 GMT, Saturday, 7 November 2009

University admissions spark fury

By Mike Baker

Building at Oxford University
Many universities already take individual circumstances into account

Social engineering, political correctness, class warfare - these cries of outrage greet any suggestion that university admissions should take account of a student's school or family background.

They were all trotted out again this week after the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, called for universities to look beyond raw exam results when selecting applicants.

"Higher Ambitions", the government's vision for the future of universities, said "much more" needed to be done to ensure that entrance to university is fairer for all students, whatever their background.

It proposed that instead of relying on A-levels, universities should also take account of "contextual data", such as applicants' school or home neighbourhood.

Inner city

This was translated by one newspaper into this headline: "Middle class students face university place struggle as Mandelson backs giving poorer students two-grade 'head start'".

That was enough to trigger a flood of angry e-mails to the newspaper's website complaining about the "dumbing down" of universities.

But it was a gross over-simplification of what is actually being proposed. For a start the government made it quite plain that the universities themselves would always, in the end, decide admissions.

And the reality is that many universities are indeed already starting to use contextual data to inform admissions decisions.

But they are not using crude measures to promote less able pupils from inner-city comprehensives ahead of more able students from independent or grammar schools.

No, they are doing it because they just want to be sure they are getting the best students, selected on merit, and chosen because they are most likely to thrive at the university.

Oxford case

Look at the new scheme at University of Oxford, for example, and judge for yourself whether it is fair or a crude social engineering.

Oxford has a tough job on admissions. Almost all of its 15,000 applicants are predicted to get at least three A grades at A-level. So how do its admissions tutors make sure they are picking the best students, irrespective of social background or prior educational experience?

First, Oxford requires most applicants to take a special university entrance exam on top of their A-level studies. Then it interviews some 10,000 students before making 3,500 offers for 3,200 places.

Because it is as interested in future potential as in past attainment, Oxford collects information on the applicants' backgrounds against five criteria. It then awards students a "flag" if they meet these criteria, which include: whether their school has below average GCSE or A-level grades, whether they live in the poorest postcode neighbourhoods, whether they have taken part in summer schools aimed at pupils from deprived homes, and whether they have even been in care.

If they meet at least three criteria, they are "flagged up" to the individual college admissions tutors. But that is not enough. They must also be predicted to get three A grades at A-level and must have passed a basic threshold in the admissions tests.

Even if they pass all these hurdles, they are still not guaranteed an interview. However the university will "strongly recommend" that they are called to interview.

Entrance to any top university makes a huge difference to life-chances

This is not binding on the individual admission tutor who, having reviewed the application, can still decide not to interview the candidate.

For 2009 entry, the first year this system was used, 438 applicants were "flagged" in at least three areas. Of these, 284 passed the test of performance in the admissions tests and being predicted AAA at A-level. All were interviewed and 63 gained places.

If anyone could still claim that is crude class warfare or social engineering then I would be amazed.

Of course, the system is not perfect. There are several points one could quibble with. For example, postcodes are not always reliable indicators of socio-economic deprivation. Equally, some schools serving the poorest neighbourhoods may well be getting above average exam results.

However, this is a very worthy attempt to make admissions fairer. After all, entrance to any top university makes a huge difference to life-chances. There is a mountain of evidence to show that the top professions recruit heavily from Oxbridge and other highly selective universities.

So a fair system of university admission is not just about universities getting the best candidates it is also about social mobility.

Which makes it hard to understand why some observers wish to portray fairer admissions - and the use of contextual data - in such a crude way.

The reality of the Oxford scheme - and there are many others - is that it is not driven by some sort of inverted snobbery or class war.

It is about making sure that university entrance is on merit, but merit that is about potential not just about past attainment.

And there is plenty of evidence to show that allowing some recognition for a student's previous experience is justified in purely academic terms.

Boycott threat

Statistical data from the Higher Education Funding Council for England shows that, when comparing students with the same A-level points scores, those from local authority schools and FE Colleges are more likely to get an Upper Second or better than those from independent schools.

Another study by Sullivan, Zimdars and Heath compared students at Oxford who had similar GCSE results. Again, it found that those from state schools were more likely to get a first than those from independent schools.

A few years ago, the independent schools became so outraged by a modest use of contextual data by Bristol University that they threatened to tell their students to boycott the university.

Now, with universities like Oxford and Durham already making careful and moderate use of contextual data, perhaps the reactions from within education will be more measured (although it will probably continue to suit parts of the media to arouse their readers' wrath)?

Under the auspices of David Cameron's interest in social mobility, the Conservative Party's policy thinkers now accept the desirability of using contextual data to widen university participation and to make admission fairer.

Perhaps there is a chance, after all, of the hysteria surrounding admissions becoming a thing of the past?

Mike Baker is an education writer and broadcaster.

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