Leader: Who is in charge of admissions?

April 9, 2004

After all the hot air that has surrounded Steven Schwartz's review of higher education admissions, this week's report will leave many observers asking what the fuss was about. The five principles of fair admissions advocated by Professor Schwartz's steering group hardly amount to the dumbing-down by stealth anticipated by critics. Indeed, the key point - that institutions should "select students who are able to complete the course as judged by their achievements and potential" - is, rightly, aimed as much at universities with low entry requirements as those at the top of the tree.

There is no encouragement for systematic positive discrimination by class, income or ethnic group, only muted demands for progress towards postqualification admissions and conditional support for a single aptitude test to supplement A levels. None of the recommendations would be mandatory; the report starts from the premise that universities should set their own selection criteria and assessment methods. So did this high-powered group devote its time to a mere talking shop or will ways be found to ensure its proposals are implemented?

Universities UK and others are understandably wary of the role envisaged for the Office for Fair Access. Institutions are invited to sign up to the "Schwartz principles" in their access agreements or to make a separate declaration to the Higher Education Funding Council for England. It is unclear why the system would bypass Offa, unless it was to satisfy ministers' assurances that the body will not meddle in the mechanics of admissions. But if such declarations were to be required Offa would surely be the appropriate recipient.

Schools have found that decisions to ignore non-statutory exhortations from government can come back to haunt them if Ofsted inspectors find their performance less than exemplary. The promised review of progress towards implementation of the admissions principles could become higher education's version of "naming and shaming", even if it did not affect the power to levy top-up fees. The review contains much sound sense - not least in supporting the widespread practice of delving deeper into the potential of teenagers who achieve apparently mediocre results at poor schools. But when the final report is published in summer, ministers must make clear the status of its recommendations. Institutions are either responsible for their own admissions policies or they are not.

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