University admissions

I see there’s another scare story about alleged bias in admissions on the part of Russell Group universities:

I feel sorry for the universities – it’s almost impossible for them to get it right.  People want them to have a transparent, fair admissions policy with clear criteria  – but they also want them to keep an eye on the socio-economic, ethnic and educational mix of their entrants.

Some universities and courses set specific requirements – for example, one Russell Group uni specifies a minimum number of A* at GCSE to be considered for Medicine. They are likely to find that kids from certain schools are more likely to achieve that, and then they’ll be vilified for their bias.

Another approach is to have an official rigid criterion but use discretion to relax it on occasions, taking into account the candidate’s background/school etc.  An alternative is a more or less complex formula involving a comparison of the candidate’s GCSE results with their school average, their parental background (occupation/educational level), their “scored” personal statement, where they live –  it might include how many pets they have and the length of their hair, for all I know!  And some universities remain vague about what they want to allow themselves wiggle room later – so it’s hard to judge if an application is realistic. Mind you, that can be the case with the complex formula too. Or indeed the “rigid with exceptions” approach. At least the set criterion approach has the merit of simplicity.

Although I’d most certainly support in principle the idea of making lower offers to candidates from lower-achieving schools, you have to make sure those students will actually cope well with the course when they get there – in many subjects, you need a fair level of background knowledge in order to manage, and if you haven’t got it, you’ll struggle. I saw this happening to a couple of my fellow-students  – the criteria had been quite reasonably relaxed for them, but they didn’t know/understand enough to cope with the course.

For some schools, worrying about the kids’ long-term prospects for university admissions is simply not that high a priority. I have friends working in schools where the policy is not to care about A* rather than A (or even rather than B) at GCSE – schools are judged on grade C or above.  Kids put in for modules early may not realistically be able to get a top grade because they haven’t been taught all the material yet – but provided it’s “good enough”, that’ll do, even if the kid themselves wants to do better.  The government could do something about this – if you make an increase from D to C count, and no other grade improvement (be it from G to F or A to A*) count, then it is only natural that schools will put their best teachers exclusively on the D/C boundary sets. If you calculated, for example, the mean score per entry, then any improvement would be valued.

Also, in schools where progression to Higher Education is common, HE Advisor is seen as an important role, and training, support and time offered. This is rather less likely to happen when only a minority of students are involved.  This was very marked at one of the recent UCAS consultation events (free events open to one representative from any institution who applied) – the vast majority of teachers there were from sixth form colleges and independent or selective schools.

Unfortunately, whatever you do within our current system, candidates who have knowledgeable advisors with time to discuss choices and personal statements in detail are likely to produce a better application than those who don’t.  No it isn’t fair at all, I agree. But how are the universities meant to combat this?  In an ideal world, universities would have ample time to get to know all their applicants in depth, and take into account their backgrounds and their schools, but that just isn’t viable without chucking tons and tons more money and time at admissions – they have to go, at least to some extent, on what they see on paper.

I actually think most courses in most universities are pretty meritocratic. They want the best students who will respond well to the teaching and will succeed.  They spend a lot of time tracking how various factors (including GCSE results, AS results, school background etc) impact on students’ performance when they get to the uni, to help inform future decisions. But they can’t be expected to put right all the wrongs of society on their own.

And if you think I’m in cloud cuckoo land about meritocratic unis… back in the 80s, I went to Cambridge to do Maths from a state school who said they didn’t know how to help me prepare, and from a family background where no-one went to uni.  I never met a single person who was there JUST due to being from the “right” school or “right” background (though I did meet some posh people alongside others with backgrounds like mine) – anyone there on that basis wouldn’t have coped!  What did allow and encourage people like me to apply for that sort of university, of course, was a full maintenance grant that you could actually live on.

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