Task force sparks fair access debate

September 26, 2003

The government's admissions task force launched a public debate this week on whether students from disadvantaged backgrounds should enjoy extra concessions when they apply to university.

In his first report as chairman of the government's admissions to higher education steering group, Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Brunel University, unveiled nine aspects of an applicant's experience that admissions officers might like to consider. The criteria include the type of school attended and the applicant's background.

Professor Schwartz said: "Almost everyone would agree that admissions decisions should be based on merit. The problem arises when we try to define merit. Merit could mean admitting students with the highest marks, or it could take into account the obstacles a student had to overcome.

"The discussion paper deliberately poses more questions than it gives answers. That is because we don't want to tell you what to think - we want to know what the public thinks."

Acknowledging that a more complex admissions system could generate more bureaucracy, he said: "Time is a major constraint on the admissions process. It is widely agreed that a speedy turn-around serves the interests of the applicant. So, if admissions staff wanted to take broader factors into consideration, they would have to do so quickly.

"This suggests that relevant factors must be easily accessible and quickly understood. Money is a related constraint: universities and colleges have finite resources for their admissions processes."

Mike Goldstein, vice-chancellor of Coventry University and a former chairman of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, raised the same concerns. He said: "Any system that is more transparent is to be welcomed. But there is a danger that we will create an overcomplicated system that will deter applicants.

"The proposals to encourage admission of students from poor backgrounds with lower grades is valid only if there is clear evidence of potential and aptitude for higher education. Otherwise, we will be encouraging failure."

The consultation championed the work of Ucas in developing a course for admissions staff that aims to ensure that reliable and valid decisions are made on admissions. It is now seeking funding from universities and colleges to run the course.

Anthony McClaran, acting chief executive of Ucas, said: "One way or the other, the course will go ahead. We are looking at the balance of funding and that has not yet been fully resolved. But we are making the idea work because it is part of spreading good practice in admissions throughout the sector and because there is demand for it."

Higher education minister Alan Johnson welcomed the task force's report but sought to distinguish it from the proposals to establish an Office of Fair Access.

He said: "Offa will make sure that any university wishing to charge higher fees after 2006 has in place an access agreement to ensure that students from poorer backgrounds are not disadvantaged from entering higher education but encouraged and enabled to do so.

"However, universities' admissions policies and procedures will be outside the remit of an access agreement and therefore nothing whatsoever to do with Offa."

The deadline for consultation is November 21. The responses will feed into the full report from the steering group to education secretary Charles Clarke, which is expected to be published in May next year.

Details: www.admissions-review.org.uk

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