Leader: Any reform must be clearly better

September 26, 2003

The review of university admissions, published this week by Steven Schwartz's task force, sensibly sticks to principles rather than becoming bogged down in the practicality of reforms. But even that (with no proposals attached) has been enough to set off a storm of righteous indignation from those who sense the thin end of a social-engineering wedge. Ministers have given the controversy a wide berth, pausing only to ensure that the argument is not associated with their equally contentious plans for an Office of Fair Access.

For many in higher education, the main issues addressed by the task force seem irrelevant - the focus of most universities and colleges is recruitment, not selection. They are only too keen to admit students of any background. Yet the pressure on places at a minority of universities has much wider significance: with the exception of the debate on top-up fees, no higher-education topic excites such strong feelings among the public.

The advent of a mass system means that a much broader share of the population aspires to a place at a "top" university, and scrutiny of the admissions process will be that much greater as a result. Any hint of unfairness will rub off on public sympathy for universities in general at a time when they need all the support they can get.

An open debate on admissions should at least bring home the complexity of the arguments. Up till now, the succession of hard-luck stories from rejected candidates with top grades has created an impression that universities are already discriminating on grounds of class, dumbing down their intake for reasons of political correctness. The universities concerned have been unable to convince critics that, faced with a surplus of top grades, they have a better way of assessing potential. Research by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and others suggests that many state-educated students outperform their counterparts from the independent sector at degree level. But admissions officers deal with individuals, not averages, and their procedures must reflect this.

As a guiding principle, there should be consensus that universities' interest is in gauging candidates' ability to thrive at degree level, rather than simply counting points. But, after several decades in which A level or an equivalent qualification seemed to be the last word in that process, the reformers face an uphill task in winning acceptance for a broader system. Supplementary tests such as Cambridge's thinking skills assessment or a version of US SATs might help if interviews are not practicable. But the task force is absolutely right to conclude that any deviation from the traditional system must be transparent if it is to command public confidence. That is not yet the case.

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