Analysis: Don't rely on just A-level results

January 17, 2003

Potential should determine university entry, a study says. Alison Goddard reports

Students who do badly at A level should still get university places if their predicted grades are good enough, according to a study published today.

The recommendation is one of several from Fair Enough?, a Universities UK-sponsored project to widen access by identifying the potential to succeed. But some of the recommendations (see box right) threaten to pitch universities and schools into a legal quagmire.

The project aims to make admissions more transparent by identifying objective criteria linked to academic success, but universities that make special allowances for some candidates could be sued by unsuccessful applicants. The project report warns that universities will have to consider the legal implications before implementing its recommendations with confidence.

The report, due to be launched by higher education minister Margaret Hodge next Wednesday, uses the tools of occupational psychology to mimic the processes employers use in developing selection criteria for jobs and in assessing applicants. It criticises the use of entry qualifications because staff use them as a proxy measure for the relative quality of different courses. It says: "There is a need to open up the debate on the role of exam attainment in admissions decisions and the use of differential offers at a subject level since it is clear that entry qualifications are used by academic staff to gauge the quality of courses in their subjects at other institutions."

An individual's circumstances should be considered with - and, in some cases, in place of - exam grades, it says. If students did badly in exams but can show that they are organised, independent and motivated, they should still get university places. This would shift the entry qualification from exam results to personal characteristics (see below).

Baroness Warwick, chief executive of UUK, said: "Universities want to ensure that as many people as possible who can benefit from higher education are given the best opportunity to do so. There is a continuing debate about the many routes through which this can be achieved. We welcome this report as a valuable contribution to that debate."

Elizabeth Stewart, senior assistant registrar at the University of Sussex, one of the institutions that participated in the study, denied that its recommendations would devalue A levels. She said: "What we are saying is that, in a very small number of cases, you have to look beyond A level."

For the recommendations to be implemented, admissions staff would have to be trained in new selection and interview techniques. Other staff would need to use the criteria to develop the curriculum and to support the skills development of students once they had enrolled.

The report also recommends that higher education representative bodies, together with the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, develop guidance to applicants and referees on how to use the Fair Enough? criteria to provide evidence through the personal statements and references required on the Ucas form.

Such work would build on that undertaken in the past few years, in which Ucas has introduced entry profiles describing what sort of person takes each course alongside the qualifications expected by the university. For example, the Ucas website tells a candidate applying to read ancient and medieval history at the University of Wales Swansea that the university looks for grades BBC to BCC from six-unit qualifications and that the course aims to deepen students' understanding and equip them with marketable skills.

Schools want more clarity on admissions. Independent schools in particular have threatened legal action against universities they suspect of denying their pupils places in favour of less qualified candidates from more deprived backgrounds.

Some 16 institutions with more than 1,000 students recruit more than a quarter of their home students from independent schools. The government has asked universities with high proportions of students from independent schools to take more from state schools. It has also granted them public funds to run events to attract these students.

Students, too, are increasingly contesting the admissions process. Solicitor Bozena Michalowska of London-based legal firm Leigh Day is acting for a student who lost his place at the University of East Anglia after initially receiving a lower grade for one of his A levels last year. By the time he was upgraded, the university could no longer accept him, and he has been forced to take a gap year. He plans to sue the OCR exam board and the Department for Education and Skills.

In November last year, a couple received payment from a private school after claiming that poor A-level teaching had cost their two sons university places. Gosfield School, in Essex, paid £9,000 in an out-of-court settlement plus costs of more than £10,000 on the basis that it did not accept the allegations. Katherine Norfolk received a similar sum from Hurstpierpoint College in West Sussex after getting an E in A-level Latin.

The Fair Enough? project is led by Elaine Sinclair. The study was based on six institutions - Kingston University; the universities of Leeds, Manchester, Southampton and Surrey; and St Mary's College in Twickenham - and the participation of staff from two or three courses at each institution.

WHAT STUDENTS SHOULD SHOW

Under Fair Enough? criteria, university applicants should be able to show the following characteristics:

* Self-organisation: ability to meet coursework deadlines; follow assignment guidelines; answer assignment questions; and balance study with other work and with family and social life

* Independence: ability to read independently outside set texts; learn from and act on feedback; prepare for study outside the classroom; ask for guidance; and make independent judgements

* Motivation: willingness to engage with studies; persist with tough topics; participate in class; put effort into studies; show enthusiasm for learning; and take advantage of learning opportunities outside the curriculum.

ADMISSIONS RECOMMENDATIONS

For selecting courses, admissions staff should:

* Use the Fair Enough? criteria for borderline applicants and to identify those who are likely to succeed at undergraduate level

* Use school performance data to spot applicants with relative educational disadvantage whose potential might otherwise be unidentified

* Consider making offers to applicants identified as at relative educational disadvantage but having the potential to succeed in line with their predicted grades

* Encourage applications from candidates with vocational qualifications

* Disseminate information on admissions criteria and procedures.

For all courses, admissions staff should:

* Use the criteria with school performance data to decide whether borderline applicants or those who would be rejected should be made offers. Offers should be in line with predicted grades

* Use the criteria at confirmation to decide whether applicants who have not achieved offer grades should be accepted.

For recruiting courses, admissions staff should:

* Identify applicants who are likely to succeed at undergraduate level but do not achieve the threshold predicted grade. Offers should be in line with predicted grades

* Use the criteria at confirmation to decide whether to accept applicants who did not get their offer grades

* In clearing, use the criteria to help decide whether to admit applicants.

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