Philosophy of widening access must be fairness

August 9, 2002

Fairness in student admissions may not have been a high priority for leading universities until recently, but the sheer variety of initiatives under way this summer shows how seriously it is taken now.

Not all of the programmes will turn out to be models for the sector - the jury is out on aptitude tests, for example, in an age of examination overload - but they demonstrate that selection can be made more sophisticated without straying into the realms of social engineering. The gradual return of the interview, for instance, restores a practice that should never have been jettisoned. The most popular departments could not afford to see every applicant, but closer scrutiny of the most plausible candidates would allay concerns in schools about apparently arbitrary sifting.

The Sutton Trust's latest research ( THES August 2) suggests that the changes are beginning to have an effect, with the proportion of state-educated entrants rising significantly in six of the most prestigious universities. But progress has come at a price that many in the new universities and colleges consider indefensible (see letters). The £6 million devoted to widening participation in more exclusive institutions represents almost £3,000 for each extra student, many of whom would probably have taken a degree elsewhere. Universities with a record of extending access at a fraction of this cost naturally feel they could have spent the money more effectively.

So they surely could, if the debate is couched purely in terms of overall numbers. The government's 50 per cent participation target will be hit or missed mainly through the actions of the new universities and colleges, not the elite.

However, equality of access must extend to the full spectrum of higher education opportunities. It is every university's responsibility to see that its admissions procedures are fair - and it is in its own interests to do so if exclusivity means that promising candidates slip through the net. To that extent, the top universities should fund their own experiments, but the government has a wider responsibility to citizens who are disadvantaged by their circumstances. When the spoils from last month's spending review are finally divided, there should be something left to continue raising their sights, even if the established champions of access deserve the lion's share.

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