Universities must not automatically make lower entry offers to state-school pupils, according to draft proposals of the government-commissioned review of student admissions.
The review team, led by Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Brunel University, argues that applicants must be treated as individuals rather than as representatives of certain groups.
The interim Schwartz recommendations, based on five overarching principles, aim to promote academic talent irrespective of background but to avoid unfair discrimination resulting from blanket affirmative action.
While certain individuals may be given less demanding entrance offers, special schemes that link universities to schools and give preferential treatment to groups must be reviewed, the report recommends.
"Some universities have special arrangements with schools," Professor Schwartz said. "One of the concerns we have is that not all students have an equal chance of getting into these compacts, and we are asking universities to review them on a regional basis so that every student has a chance to be included."
Five principles underline a fair admissions system, according to the draft recommendations.
First, the review recommends that a fair admissions system be transparent.
Universities and colleges should publish their admissions policy and detailed criteria for admission to courses, along with an explanation of the process. Information on dropout and employment rates should also be published.
Second, the assessment methods used should be reliable, it says.
Institutions should use tests and approaches that have been shown to predict undergraduate success. Links between admissions policies and undergraduate performance and retention should be monitored.
Third, Professor Schwartz says that students should be selected on their ability to complete the course.
"Some courses have a very high dropout rate, and this suggests that the dropout rate has something to do with how the students are selected for the course," he said.
"For some of the recruiting universities, this is an issue. Are they selecting students who are capable of completing the course, or are they taking students just to fill their places?" he asked.
Admissions staff may consider other factors in addition to examination results - interviews and non-academic experience. Application forms should be redesigned to prompt students to include information that could strengthen their applications.
Fourth, the report recommends that barriers to admissions be minimised.
These could include the expense of certain assessment tests and travel costs to assessment centres.
Finally, admissions should be centralised and admissions tutors trained.
There should be clear lines of responsibility to ensure consistency within institutions, appropriate resources and clear guidelines for the appointment and training of admissions staff.
The draft recommendations are out for consultation until the end of May.
Final recommendations are due to be published in September.
A fair admissions system should:
- Be transparent
- Use assessment methods that are reliable
- Allow institutions to select students who are able to complete the course as judged by their achievements and their potential
- Minimise barriers for applicants
- Be professional in every respect and underpin systems with appropriate institutional structures and processes.
Holistic cure in these testing times