Lower bar for poor, DfES told

October 20, 2006

Report suggests admissions tutors reduce grade requirements for applicants from 'disadvantaged' groups to widen participation, Jessica Shepherd reports

Universities should offer places to "disadvantaged" students whose exam results are up to two grades lower than the minimum course requirements, a government-funded study has recommended.

The report, published next week but seen by The Times Higher , encourages admissions tutors to give easier access to sixth-formers from low-income families or from poor-performing schools than is given to those from higher socioeconomic groups.

The study, carried out by researchers at Leeds University and commissioned by the Government's widening-participation organisation Aimhigher, proposes that institutions collaborate nationally to ensure that more students from underrepresented groups enter university.

University admissions tutors do take candidates' backgrounds into consideration. But systems vary between universities and departments. While the Leeds report recommends a national approach to access, it stops short of prescribing a nationwide entry policy or tariff, stressing that admissions tutors should "preserve their autonomy".

Nonetheless, it says that some tutors "will in some circumstances give [applicants] larger reductions than 40 [Universities and Colleges Admissions Service] points". This is the difference between a C and an A grade at A level.

It suggests that candidates in local authority care, those who have a long-term illness or disability, those with family problems or those caring for a baby or sick relative should have such circumstances taken into account. These students could gain extra Ucas points by participating in summer schools and access courses, it says.

In 2004, widening-participation units at universities started compact schemes to help disadvantaged youngsters get into higher education. At present, hundreds rather than thousands of students take advantage of the schemes. The report's authors criticise how badly publicised they are and urge collaboration and the sharing of best practice among the five or six schemes in existence across the country.

Paul Sharp, co-author of the report and manager of the project looking into compacts at Leeds, said: "We want course admissions tutors to have access to information about the backgrounds and circumstances of a candidate and to be in a position to take those into account.

"It is also about helping admissions tutors to identify potential. The more that is understood about applicants' backgrounds and circumstances, the better an admissions tutor can judge potential and make offers appropriately.

"I think that some unfairness is going on at the moment. At present, there is evidence to show that there is a greater proportion of students from higher socioeconomic groups gaining access to university than those from lower socioeconomic groups."

The report's findings were based on the results of questionnaires sent to widening-participation offices at every British university and given to 14 focus groups comprising teachers and 16 to 19-year-olds over the past two years.

Helen Carasso, acting director of Oxford University colleges admissions office, said: "Oxford considers each candidate in great detail as an individual - looking at many indicators of their academic achievement and potential - and selects the brightest and best regardless of social, educational or economic background.

"We would not therefore wish (or indeed consider it appropriate) to use any formulaic method to 'take into account' the background of our applicants."

David Law, chair of the Academic Registrars' Admissions Group, said: "No system should be so rigid as to depend entirely on exam grades with no recognition of the benefits or disadvantages that candidates have encountered."

The report, Opportunity and Equity: Developing a Framework for Good Practice in Compact Schemes , will be launched at a widening-participation conference next week.

The report is a response to the 2004 government-commissioned Schwartz review on fair admissions to university. The review urged universities to take a "wider view" of a candidate's potential to close the gap between the numbers of rich and poor students going to university.

jessica.shepherd@thes.co.uk

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