The crisis of confidence in A levels might have been expected to lessen any controversy over the efforts of leading universities to boost the share of places going to state-educated students. After all, it is difficult for independent schools to argue now that admissions staff should place all their faith in an apparently discredited grading system. Yet the private schools' claims that well-qualified candidates are already being passed over in favour of weaker rivals from state schools have had an impact. The publication of targets to tip the balance further has added to widespread suspicion that universities are engaged in the twin evils of social engineering and dumbing down (page 3).
If discrimination is the name of the game, admissions officers have not been very good at it up to now. Hardly any of the universities demanding three As at A level admit two-thirds of their undergraduates from the state sector, which accounts for that proportion of maximum grades. Although the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference produced some striking rejection rates, they were for courses that are heavily oversubscribed and did not amount to clinching evidence of unfairness. But some of the targets set by universities such as Bristol and Edinburgh go well beyond state students' share of the top grades.
At that point, universities will need to show that they are able to gauge the potential in lower-achieving state applicants. Research suggests that such students can overhaul their counterparts from independent schools at degree level, and A-level grades had been shown to be less than precise before Mike Tomlinson reported. But exam results constitute the only objective evidence available to most universities, and to downgrade the most successful applicants looks more like prejudice than sound judgement to the outside world. If the aim is to raise the proportion of working-class students in higher education, the distinctions endorsed by the government are a blunt instrument. Students from poor postcodes are often among the minority of more prosperous residents, and many state schools serve overwhelmingly middle-class catchment areas.
To make allowances for candidates from schools with poor overall results is entirely defensible. Most independent schools do the same when comparing applicants from state primaries with highly coached children from prep schools. The difference is that they have the luxury of interviews to pick out future high-fliers. Not only is that option closed to most universities in the era of mass higher education, but even interested observers of the process have little idea how departments with dozens of well-qualified applicants for every place narrow down the field.
Some universities are experimenting with aptitude tests adapted from the US. Taken in conjunction with sixth-form examinations, they may uncover hidden talent. But the trials conducted by the Sutton Trust were hardly conclusive in demonstrating that they would be worth adding to the exam overload that teenagers face. Perhaps Universities UK's Fair Enough? project will produce an alternative method of assessment: some business recruitment techniques, for example, might highlight the qualities needed to thrive at degree level.
Whatever the outcome, it is unlikely to be cheap. Top US universities are held up as the model of needs-blind admissions, but they spend millions trawling for outstanding students without taking large numbers from poor neighbourhoods. It is difficult to imagine British universities being willing or able to make the same investment, but something similar will be needed if they are to maintain their reputation for excellence while satisfying legitimate demands for a broader social base.