While some universities welcome admissions tests, others fear they will exclude students from poor backgrounds. Alan Thomson looks at the arguments
With four well-qualified candidates applying for every place on an undergraduate law course in the UK, something had to be done to help tutors choose whom to admit.
The answer was the National Admission Test for Law, known as the Lnat. From November, eight universities - Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Durham, East Anglia, Nottingham, Oxford and University College, London - will set the Lnat.
From 2005, candidates will be considered for interview and admission to law courses at these universities only if they sit and perform well in the test.
However, the consortium has been quick to point out that doing well in the Lnat does not guarantee an interview or admission. This is necessary to preserve the traditional autonomy of universities to control their own admissions.
In truth, the test resembles an English A level. There is an 80-minute section that asks for close reading of a number of text extracts, followed by multiple-choice questions to test a candidate's comprehension skills.
This is followed by a 40-minute essay-writing section.
The Lnat gives an example using an extract from a book on education. It centres on the application of the words "free" and "freedom" in the context of education.
The related multiple-choice questions test candidates' understanding of the piece by asking them to identify a specific implication within the text, what the authors may have suggested in the piece and what, again from a range of options, could not be inferred from the extract.
This part of the test is designed to enable identification of candidates who can quickly and accurately assimilate new information and who have the reasoning abilities to mine this information for other possible meanings.
The fact that the information is new, with candidates unlikely to have come across the extracts before seeing them in the test, underlies the claim that coaching and preparation will make little difference to a candidate's performance in the Lnat.
Essay topics are likely to be eclectic, with examples on the Lnat website encompassing reality TV show Big Brother , higher education expansion and global warming. The broad range of subjects is intended to test the applicants' abilities to develop, sustain and communicate an argument.
There is likely to be a charge of between £20 and £25 to sit the test. Candidates will be able to take it at one of about 50 test centres across the UK and all will sit the test on the same day.
The test is set and marked by Pearson Assessments and Testing, in conjunction with the examinations company Edexcel.
The Lnat Consortium Ltd, a company comprising the eight universities listed, oversees the setting of the test and owns the copyright.
Pearson will be monitoring the the results, and a longitudinal study will be subsequently conducted to investigate whether there is any correlation between a good Lnat result and a high class of degree.