A system without marked values

October 8, 2004

Bob Brecher has an idea that might solve the admissions conundrum

The silly season this year was much as expected: the best-ever A/AS-level results, naturally, and the usual complaints from admissions tutors and administrators about how offers of three As no longer work as a way of sorting out "the brightest" students.

But the underlying question is real enough: what should we do about admissions? Well, it's true that A-level grades don't pick out the cleverest students, but they never did. With the odd exception, what they did was to function as indicators of class advantage and factors related to it: so, unsurprisingly, they also worked to pick out students likely to need least teaching to get a degree.

So it's easy to see why "objective" admissions tests are once again being touted as a solution: they're a measure of genuine ability and thus not only a reliable predictor, but also an unbiased filter. In short, they're the obvious solution. They sort the administrative nightmare of trying to get the right number of the best students the place can attract - and they're an answer to the rampant inequality of opportunity that continues to characterise British society. Only that's not how they work, as commentators in the US are increasingly pointing out. "Aptitude tests" are culturally saturated. What they "measure" is at best obscure, and the crammers - private or public - can train students to pass them just as efficiently as A/AS levels. All they'd achieve would be to erect a spurious veneer over the present shambles and help us pretend that the emperor had put his clothes back on.

But what should we do? We can't just leave it to "the admissions people" and hope the problem goes away. It won't. So here's the outline of a practical solution. First, let's stop worrying about A/AS grades. We don't worry about the grades people get on access courses - indeed, we're not allowed to. And that's no problem - quite the contrary: because access courses are pass/fail, it's easier for tutors to focus on the knowledge and academic skills people need for degree work, rather than it being the college's "performance" on grades that matters.

Second, let's get serious about widening participation and the idea of university education as a public good, a necessity for any contemporary society. But, of course, the more people who go to university, the more an increasing proportion will need more, not less, good teaching if degrees are not to become glorified GCSEs. So let's spread the load. Prospective students could apply, in order of preference, for a range of subjects, rather than a range of universities. They would be accepted if they had passes in appropriate A/AS levels, access courses and their various equivalents. They would be allocated randomly to a university that taught what they wanted to do, going down the list of preferences as necessary.

The system would have to be tweaked to allow for students who needed to go to university locally and to equalise living expenses in different towns.

Perhaps students could even be allowed individual swaps - easily organised through a website.

The great advantage of such a system would be that departments at every university in the country would have more or less the same proportion of students of various academic abilities, from different social classes and from private and state schools. Virtually the whole participation agenda would be achieved at a stroke, and all of us, at whichever university we worked, would have to make an equal contribution to the demanding teaching that a system of mass higher education requires.

There'd be a bonus too. Since results wouldn't need to be graded, and interviews, open days and so on would be irrelevant, both ends of the process could be managed quickly enough to allow candidates to apply post-qualification.

So, why not? What could be fairer?

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy, Brighton University.

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