Alan Ryan

November 21, 2003

What of the 33 per cent of students who never finish at UEL?'

The consultation on fair admissions represents too small a slice of the community and ignores the possibility of using numerical scores

November 21 is the deadline for responses to Steven Schwartz's consultation on fair admissions. As it is too late to poison anyone's mind, here are a few things we should all be too polite to say. The first is that it is odd to devote so much time to a consultation on ways to get students from unskilled backgrounds into the "top" universities when there are far too few of them to go round. In the US, the small number of well-qualified African-American students from inner-city schools are pursued by admissions officers from Ivy League schools. They often decline the offer of £25,000 a year in upmarket education for the good reason that they want to live in a big city, not a lily-white suburb.

Of course, you might say that race is social class attached to prejudice about skin colour, and that we should embark on much the same sort of affirmative-action schemes that US universities employ. You might, but you'd better keep an eye out for the Human Rights Act, and the European Convention on Human Rights that it has brought into British law. A British university might get away with the argument for diversity that the University of Michigan and the University of Michigan law school employed earlier this year, but it was very noticeable that, in that case, it was only the law school that made any headway. The undergraduate admissions office was sent back to devise a system tailored to the individual and told to stop giving every minority applicant a leg-up.

It is, of course, an unequivocally good idea to get suitably qualified students from any background into an appropriate higher education institution. But it is not obvious that the most pressing problem is that of getting the few thousand school-leavers from social classes IV and V (partly skilled and unskilled occupations) who have three A levels at C and above into Cambridge University or Bristol University. What about the 33 per cent of incoming students who never finish at the University of East London? On a simple utilitarian reckoning, one might think that that statistic matters more because it involves more people, who lose more by dropping out than someone loses by going to Brunel rather than Bristol.

Then you look at the suggestion that we should go to post-qualifications application systems - admissions after A level, rather than before. That's rational, but only in conjunction with something that would do a lot of good even without PQA: abandoning grades and opting for numerical scores.

The madness of the present system is that places that would make offers to 100 plausible applicants on condition that their scores were in the top 500 in the country have no way of doing it; the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service even discourages universities from asking for numerical scores in AS level. PQA without real numbers, and some approach to rank ordering, would leave universities almost as ignorant after the event as before. A string of bare 80s is not as impressive as a string of 99s.

The argument for PQA as offered by higher education minister Alan Johnson is couched entirely in terms of offering incentives to unconfident students who would aim higher with As in hand than they would eight months before with nothing but their teachers' predictions. It's a perfectly good argument - but it ignores the concern of the selective universities that they should select on grounds of academic quality. Quality assessment needs more detail than letter grades provide. Not everything is about aspiration; selection matters too.

The one mildly amusing thing to emerge from the consultation document is the extent to which the presumed targets of all this are almost the only institutions that already do most of what is suggested (the others are small specialised colleges). Cambridge and Oxford universities lavish an extraordinary amount of time, effort and money on a hand-picking process that allows them to look at each individual and at factors other than straight academic records, to talk to them about their work and their aspirations, and to make the sort of all-round assessment that the consultation document supposes an ideal world would produce. It is the popular big civic universities that use A-level grades as a statistical sieve by which they can match available places to applicants. If Cambridge had 37,000 applicants rather than 14,000, the present hand-crafted system would collapse. How far the results justify the effort is another question - and one that it would be indecent to raise as one's colleagues are about to embark on four weeks of unremitting slog.

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.

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