Unnatural selection

January 17, 2003

Narrow admissions policies are keeping able applicants out of university, argues Helen Connor

Fair access to universities is crucial in developing widening participation and ensuring that more people have the chance to benefit from a higher education.

But is the current system fair enough? Clearly not, if the latest higher education performance indicators are anything to go by. While the overall number of students has grown and representation of some minority groups in higher education increased, those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds remain the main under-represented group.

Many of the widening participation activities seem to have had little impact on this. Only slight improvements have been made in numbers of students recruited from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, especially to many of the more prestigious universities, where they represent under a quarter of students. And the odds on going to university for those from a working-class home are much the same as a decade ago.

So what needs to be done?

More evidence about the limited impact of some of the widening participation activities would certainly help, for example on where they have actually improved representation of particular minority groups in university intakes. There is also a lack of systematic monitoring of the progress of students who come to university via widening participation programmes relative to other students (this could then be used for planning purposes).

Admittedly, university outreach programmes targeted at younger school pupils are unlikely to produce significant results in the short term. Research shows that problems of underachievement in school and the entrenched negative attitudes of some groups on the benefits of staying in education post-16 need far more long-term commitment and resources than is currently the case.

Uncertainties about the likely financial burdens on students imposed by new systems of fees and loans have not helped either. There is a need for greater clarity, as well as action on the financial disincentives to go to university.

But more could be done closer to the "coal face", for example what happens in the admissions process itself? A cultural change is needed in the way some universities and departments identify potential talent and offer places.

The continued use of narrow selection criteria, based on little more than A-level results, coupled with a lack of transparency and objectivity in how universities make decisions on offering places, has not helped to widen access to more people with the ability to succeed. Although A-level scores are a strong predictor of successful degree outcomes, they are not the sole indicator. And there has been a distinct lack of research linking how offers are decided and widening participation.

At next week's Fair Enough? conference, universities, colleges and schools will have the opportunity to hear about new selection approaches adopted by some universities. It will include the outcomes of the national Fair Enough? project on offer decision-making. It has helped a range of courses to identify relevant, objective selection criteria and implement them in their 2002 and current admissions rounds.

For example, they have been used in developing entry profiles to help potential applicants make more informed choices and to improve their applications to particular courses; in developing better ways of assessing "potential talent" in applicants from a range of backgrounds; and in training admissions tutors, whose role as "gatekeepers" of the whole process has often been undervalued.

Fair Enough? and other projects that aim to break down barriers in admissions are still small in scale, but many of those involved see them as just the beginning. They have sparked new ideas and challenged assumptions among academic staff about what makes a "successful student".

It is to be hoped that the innovative work undertaken so far will be encouraged further by the government's proposals on the future of higher education and will aid progress towards the goal of fair access.

Helen Connor is an independent research consultant on higher education and employment; she is a member of the Fair Enough? project research team. She will be speaking alongside Elaine Sinclair, the project's manager, at the Fair Enough? conference on widening access on January 22 at the New Connaught Rooms, London.

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