Schwartz: tests key to fairer access

September 10, 2004

The use of admissions tests to help lure more pupils from underprivileged backgrounds into higher education was endorsed this week by the head of the Government's inquiry into fair access - just days before the publication of his final report.

Speaking at a conference this week, Steven Schwartz said that American-style scholastic aptitude tests (SATs) or the thinking skills test being developed at Cambridge University could help talent-spot bright youngsters who "wouldn't appear on the radar screen of selective universities" if only their A levels were taken into account.

But Professor Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Brunel University, warned against the "proliferation of many different tests in different places" and said the cost of sitting different tests could prove a financial barrier to candidates from poor backgrounds.

He also stressed that admissions tests should only be seen as an "extra" method of selecting candidates alongside traditional exam results, interviews and application forms.

The final report of the Schwartz inquiry into fair admissions is due to be published on Tuesday.

It is expected to emphasise that universities should recruit on the basis of merit rather than "automatically" treat some applications more favourably on the basis of their social background.

But admissions tutors will be encouraged to take into account a candidate's "educational context" - including non-academic experience and personal circumstances - as well as exam results.

The final recommendations are also expected to endorse the principle of post-qualification applications, with students applying to university on the basis of actual rather than predicted grades.

Professor Schwartz outlined his thinking about admissions tests at a Sutton Trust/Social Market Foundation conference in London.

As The Times Higher revealed last week, another of the conference delegates, Peter Tymms of Durham University, will suggest that universities "weight" an applicant's A levels according to the difficulty of the subject.

Another speaker, Robert Harding of Cambridge University's Local Examinations Syndicate, is to explain how the Thinking Skills Assessment being developed at Cambridge can help indicate a candidate's likely performance in exams at the end of their first year as an undergraduate.

Ahead of his speech, Professor Schwartz said there was a case for the results of admissions tests to be included in the "Tomlinson transcript" - the individual record of achievement proposed by the separate inquiry into reform of the 14-to-19 exam system.

He said: "The reason that the SAT was adopted in the first place and why it was adopted in the US was to try to widen access. But the motivation behind the introduction of the SAT was very similar to what we are trying to do with widening participation: trying to identify hidden talent in ways that might not be uncovered by traditional A level-type tests.

"The SAT might still serve that purpose, identifying kids who you wouldn't necessarily find otherwise. If you just looked at their A levels, they wouldn't even appear on the radar screen of a selective university."

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