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.

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

POSTSCRIPT:

Roxanne Stockwell is principal of Pearson College London.

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Most Commented

question marks PhD study

Selecting the right doctorate is crucial for success. Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O'Gorman share top 10 tips on how to pick a PhD

India, UK, flag

Sir Keith Burnett reflects on what he learned about international students while in India with the UK prime minister

Pencil lying on open diary

Requesting a log of daily activity means that trust between the institution and the scholar has broken down, says Toby Miller

Microlight pilot flies with flock of cranes

Reports of UK-based researchers already thinking of moving overseas after Brexit vote

Portrait montage of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage

From Donald Trump to Brexit, John Morgan considers the challenges of a new international political climate