Alison Wolf

October 17, 2003

Entry decisions based on points are a minefield and will not work in an admissions system run on a shoestring

A few years ago, at an Australian sandstone (read Russell Group) university, I was shocked that undergraduate admissions were decided solely on exam marks. I thought the government must be impinging on universities'

freedom of choice, but I now know better. The university - like most in Australia - opted for this system years back. Most of the world does the same. In the UK, meanwhile, two separate issues are threatening the legitimacy of the whole admissions process. First, in the minority of courses that are highly selective, A levels no longer distinguish usefully between applicants. Far too many have the same high grades; decisions are, necessarily, arbitrary, and so everyone feels potentially or actually discriminated against.

If entry is to have anything to do with attainment, solving this problem means changing A levels or introducing an additional exam. You don't solve it by addressing the other issue: namely whether admissions generally are taking the "right" account, in the "right" proportions, of the "right" factors. The government's subtext here is that selective universities take too few students from non-middle-class families, or from state schools, or from poorly performing schools (the three being far from identical). Its admissions review group, chaired by Brunel University's Steven Schwartz, duly identifies applicants' "social and economic context" and admission with "grades lower than the norm" as its key concerns, which is politically accurate, if conceptually rather stunted.

Choose the right example and both issue and solution seem clear. On the one hand, a laid-back applicant with highish grades from a selective, very high-performing independent school and a well-off family; on the other, an eager kid with slightly lower but decent grades from a poorly educated family in a deprived neighbourhood, and from a school where going to university at all is rare. Who wouldn't see the latter as more deserving and a better academic bet? What UK admissions officer wouldn't behave accordingly - without any policy changes?

But such a stark choice is the exception, and most of the relevant information isn't to hand in a system of mass admissions and pressure for rapid decisions. What is feasible is some sort of points system tied to administrative data; and it is to points and quantitative targets that public-sector managers always tend to turn. Points off for independent schooling would be administratively simple in the short term. Moreover, independent schools deliver what the customer pays for.

Work by Harvey Goldstein and colleagues at the Institute of Education shows that selective independent schools, taken as a whole, get significantly better A-level results than you would expect from pupils' GCSE grades.

Better sixth-form teaching would help explain the Higher Education Funding Council for England's finding that, given equal grades at A level, independent school pupils do rather less well on average at university than their state-school peers. However, first of all, this doesn't hold at the very top, which is where all the fuss has been. And, second, we are talking averages - and it is individuals who are being chosen.

Alter your options: a state pupil from one of those schools whose catchment area adds hundreds of thousands of pounds to the price of a house, and an independent school pupil on a full-fees scholarship linked to family hardship. Now what? And how will the admissions officer ever know all this?

The US has a lot to teach us here (especially now that human rights have entered our courtrooms). Challenges to points-based affirmative action systems have been reaching the Supreme Court; and its most recent judgments (Grutter v Bollinger, Gratz v Bollinger) are well worth downloading (www.

findlaw.com/supreme_court). The court's view is that a university can have a legitimate interest in diversity and in criteria other than academic performance; but it must look at each applicant's particular qualifications and contribution. As for the cost involved, the fact that something "might present administrative challenges does not render constitutional an otherwise problematic system".

Affirmative action in the US is a legacy of the terrible crime of slavery.

It also created its own backwash of racial bitterness and individual injustices. Are our admissions problems so acute that we want to venture down that route? With most admissions done on a shoestring, I'd far rather stick with criteria that are, to some degree, under candidates' own control than include those over which they have none. I'm sure we need properly funded catch-up programmes for sixth-formers from poor schools; but in a politicised high-stakes system, I'm no longer at all confident that we have it right and that my Australian friends are wrong.

Alison Wolf is professor of management at King's College London.

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