Sunday, 14 February 2010

University bias - Time for a more rigorous University admissions process?

"University bias hits private straight-A students" proclaims the Daily Telegraph headline.

The present situation was summed up last week by a spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills who said,
"Although admissions are rightly a matter for individual institutions, the Government is committed to ensuring that entry to university is determined by aptitude, potential and merit, not where a student was educated.”
Sadly, this has Lord Mandleson's fingerprints all over it, and I think that we all know where he stands on this one.

If we are going to lay a greater emphasis on "aptitude or potential" over and above "merit", then there need to be transparent, objective criteria so to do. Professor Steve Smith, the Vice Chancellor of Exeter University and the President of Universities UK, talks of a "duty" on admissions tutors to identify good students with poorer grades. May I suggest that, if this is going to be the direction that it forced on them by the Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, then universities go to greater trouble than they are at present doing? Perhaps they should take a leaf out of the Oxford and Cambridge admissions book:

Not every top student can be awarded a place at Oxford and Cambridge. These ancient institutions have a long history of sifting through applications from the nation's top students. Their procedures are far more rigorous than nearly all other universities in that they still interview all the candidates who have a realistic chance of gaining a place. What is more, in many subjects they still give tests at interview, and they run an efficient "pool" system to ensure that a top candidate is not overlooked just because he or she has applied to a College where there is a particularly strong field. I am happy to trust their system - my experience is they usually get it right.

We need a transparent and more rigorous admissions process if our universities are going to evaluate aptitude, potential and merit properly. How can a university evaluate a candidate's aptitude or potential solely on the basis of what is written on a UCAS form? It is impossible to understand how an A-level student with predictions of A*A*A* at A-level can be rejected outright by a university without being interviewed or undergoing some other written test, yet nearly every Independent School can give you at least one example. The only explanation seems to be that these universities either are not interested in excellence, or that they are fundamentally prejudiced against candidates from Independent Schools.

Ultimately this debate begs the question as to how far we take this argument for special pleading - we don't expect those responsible for the Government's civil service entry to lower their graduate recruitment criteria, so why should we expect our universities to do so?

Eton boys have less potential than talented comprehensive pupils Sunday Telegraph 14/02/2010

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