Leader: If stars are OK for research why not for A levels too?

January 31, 2003

Much of the agenda for higher education is clearer since last week's white paper. Academics might not like the direction in which they are being pointed, with top-up fees, much greater specialisation, performance-related pay and 6* research departments. But at least the uncertainty is over and universities can begin to position themselves in the new higher education "market".

Ironically, however, one glaring exception is in an area that has been of greatest concern to ministers: student admissions. If anything, universities are now less clear what is expected of them. They know the bogeyman (or woman) to be known as the access regulator will be able to fine them or prevent them charging top-up fees, but there is confusion over the way in which their attempts to widen participation will be measured and on how they should identify the brightest candidates.

Time will tell whether the regulator is a sop to Gordon Brown and rebellious Labour backbenchers or an enthusiastic enforcer of political correctness. Universities are already required to submit access plans to the funding council, after all, and it would take a thick-skinned regulator to deprive Oxford or Cambridge of millions of pounds in fee income.

The white paper was not the only document to muddy the admissions waters last week, however. On the day before the government proposed to change the way it measures deprivation with a switch to parental education and schools' results, funding council-sponsored research pointed in the opposite direction. A case could be made for demanding higher grades from independently educated students, but not for giving preferential treatment to those at poorly performing schools.

As that research was being presented, the government's plans for 14-to-19 education were ensuring that admissions officers would find it no easier to distinguish between the ablest candidates. The flawed proposal for a distinction grade at A level, which would have meant candidates gambling marks on more sophisticated questions, was abandoned on the grounds that take-up for the new Advanced Extension Awards had been better than expected. At only 7,000 entries, there is a long way to go before universities will use them for selection.

In the meantime, universities with too many applicants to interview will persevere with the near-impossible task of divining which of the many candidates heading for three As at A level are the real high-fliers. Even one star is apparently not enough to mark out the top research departments, but it is still considered beyond the pale at A level. Ministers owe it to the institutions they threaten to penalise, and to the students who will miss out on rationed places despite the best possible examination results, to come up with a more accurate method of identifying the top performers.

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