Policy is bane of the able

Durham University's Chris Higgins and Anthony Forster question the wisdom of limits on the number of admissions

June 4, 2009

Durham University's admissions policy has recently been in the spotlight, with suggestions in parts of the press that we and other leading universities are complicit in a government policy of social engineering. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Durham is extremely popular among students, parents and employers because of our distinctive two-fold commitment to excellence in education: academic mentorship directly by world-leading researchers and unique opportunities for personal development in our residential colleges. We jealously guard our right to select those students we believe can best benefit from the type of education we have to offer.

Selecting them from a large pool of talented applicants does, of course, require the wisdom of Solomon. Each year, we are unable to make offers to as many straight-A candidates as we would like and for many courses we have more straight-A candidates than, for example, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

Our admissions process is not formulaic, criteria are openly published, and every applicant is treated as an individual, equally and on merit. In addition, academic staff from the department to which the student has applied make individual decisions, based on merit and potential.

As most applicants have straight As, other factors must be taken into consideration to distinguish between such talent, including a personal statement, the school's reference, study skills, motivation for the degree, independence of thought, achievements in non-academic activities and how an applicant has performed in relation to other leading students in his or her school. This last factor is based on teachers' comments and data on the performance of the applicant's school. Simply because these data are provided by a government department does not mean universities are doing the Government's bidding.

It is well known that Durham has a high proportion of students from independent schools, and they are valued equally to the 60 per cent of our students from state schools: all are extremely talented. The proportion of students accepted from any school type demonstrably reflects the proportion of applicants from that school type with no bias for or against any particular school or background - as you would expect if selection is done on the basis of an individual. However, the corollary is that there are equally bright and motivated students who do not apply to Durham. If they do not apply, they have no chance of getting in and that is why we are putting effort into increasing applications from students from a wide range of backgrounds.

There is, however, a significant government limitation on access to education that is less often talked about - the limit on the number of students that individual universities can recruit. In common with other universities, Durham has to turn away many excellent applicants. Indeed, we are threatened with fines if we over-recruit. This policy restricts access by some of the UK's most motivated students from gaining the education they want.

The limitation of this policy is illustrated by Durham's physics department, identified last year in Thomson Reuters' Essential Science Indicators as the leading department in Europe for space science research. Owing to our excellence in this field, the current threshold to be considered for an offer from Durham is four As at A level. Nevertheless, we are forced to turn away students who achieve that. This is despite the Government's saying that physics is critical to the nation's future.

Pressure for fair admissions for individuals and the mismatch between the number of highly qualified applicants and the number of available places will ensure that the admissions policies of individual universities will continue to command attention. As the 2004 Schwartz Report rightly emphasised, universities need to be transparent and fair about their approach to admissions. At Durham our aim is to recruit the most able and motivated students with the greatest potential, irrespective of their background. The only bias we have is towards excellence, wherever it is found.

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