How to spot different sorts of potential

Roxanne Stockwell calls on universities to rethink their admissions criteria

November 17, 2015
Source: iStock
Just the ticket: universities need to be more imaginative when selecting who to admit

In Britain, unlike many other countries, universities have the autonomy to admit the students they want. Those with the highest University and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) points have the most choices. Is this really the most appropriate system?

It certainly doesn’t have to be this way. Some courses require an audition. The Open University is open access. Universities in some countries must admit all who have passed their high school diploma, while in others criteria such as sporting skills come into play.

The idea behind reliance on A levels is that university is for the brightest students. But given the strong link between A-level performance and socioeconomic background, should this really be the predominant way that we identify aptitude?

Degrees in the humanities are often regarded as non-instrumental, aiming to broaden the mind and help to shape the person. Why should entry depend on A-level results? Would it not be more relevant to choose people who show a real passion for the subject? We might even argue that opportunities should be made more readily available to those who have had the poorest educational and life chances, since they have the most to gain.

If we consider science degrees, on the other hand, then choosing on the basis of high academic ability makes sense. Society benefits from the brightest minds focusing on research. However, this is not the only essential characteristic for a successful scientist. Today, they need to be methodical, creative, meticulous, good at fundraising and above all highly collaborative. Few, if any, of these traits are fully tested through A levels. Admissions criteria could be reshaped to include the testing of collaborative and communicative skills.

Only a tiny percentage of students become academics and researchers. For the majority, university is the gateway to a career, such as law, accountancy or business. What about admission to these degrees?

According to employer feedback, many graduates are missing important attributes such as team working and communication skills, commercial awareness and adaptability. The right attitudes, aptitudes and interests can be more important to employers than academic qualifications alone. If the purpose of these degrees is to help students to get graduate jobs, shouldn’t the admissions process reflect this?

Graduate entry days are now about identifying potential, with the degree itself being only part of what is considered. In some recent publicised cases, a number of top companies decided not to look at the degree, university or A-levels grades, in order to assess graduates’ aptitude without class bias.

We are exploring this challenge at Pearson College London, with a twin track route on to our programmes. One route is via an assessment day, where potential students are tested for cognitive reasoning, numeracy, written and oral communication and collaborative ability.

If we are promoting different courses for particular purposes, then we should have constructive alignment between the way we present them in our marketing material, the admissions criteria and the learning experience. For the students, the crucial starting point is the admissions procedure.

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Roxanne Stockwell is principal of Pearson College London.

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