Ivory tower inferno

Top universities are protesting about new, official benchmarks that monitor their state-school intake. Are they right to do so? Lucy Hodges reports on the latest row over access
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Britain's leading universities are being inveigled by the Government into taking more applicants from state schools at the expense of those from private schools. One way has been by naming and shaming them. The publication of league tables showing that universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Edinburgh and Exeter are falling below a "benchmark" - the proportion of students it is deemed they should be recruiting from the state sector - has forced those universities to take action. Bristol, Edinburgh and Exeter are all making strenuous efforts to improve their showing in these tables, particularly when it comes to the oversubscribed subjects - English, history, law and psychology - and have been accused of discriminating against independent school candidates.

Britain's leading universities are being inveigled by the Government into taking more applicants from state schools at the expense of those from private schools. One way has been by naming and shaming them. The publication of league tables showing that universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Edinburgh and Exeter are falling below a "benchmark" - the proportion of students it is deemed they should be recruiting from the state sector - has forced those universities to take action. Bristol, Edinburgh and Exeter are all making strenuous efforts to improve their showing in these tables, particularly when it comes to the oversubscribed subjects - English, history, law and psychology - and have been accused of discriminating against independent school candidates.

Although they deny the charges, there is no doubt they are trying harder to find state school students whom they believe have potential and that this can involve taking such students on lower A-level grades than those from independent schools. The result is that these universities' performances against the benchmarks has been improving. (Oxford and Cambridge's position has been improving too, but they are not being accused of discrimination in the same way.) But now a new row has erupted due to the sudden change in the way that the benchmarks are calculated.

The result has been that the benchmarks of the leading universities have moved up. Where last year, Cambridge's benchmark for state school undergraduates was 68 per cent, today it stands at 76.8 per cent. Oxford's has increased from 69 to 77.2 per cent, University College London's from 76 to 81 per cent. The universities are fed up. "This is just silly," says Michael Worton, vice-provost of UCL. "The irritating thing is that we were making progress and now they've introduced a new methodology without informing or consulting us and without explaining what it's about."

Next week the Russell Group of top universities will be meeting and the subject is expected to be a hot topic of discussion. "We will ask the Higher Education Council (Hefce) to look at it again," says Professor Michael Sterling, chairman of the Russell Group and vice-chancellor of Birmingham University. Working out a benchmark for the proportion of state school pupils that each university should admit is a complex mathematical calculation which in the past has taken account of the number of 18-year-olds with the requisite A-levels in the pool of applicants. It estimates what percentage of those would be expected to go to a given institution to study a given subject. The aim is to provide universities with a picture of the talent out there and whether they are drawing on the full range of that talent. This year, instead of taking into account A-level grades, the benchmark has taken into account the new UCAS tariff.

Under this tariff, students can accumulate points over a period of time for a whole range of qualifications including A-levels, AS levels and key skills. Many more young people can tot up an impressive points score by this route. That is why the benchmarks have increased. But students can compensate for a lack of quality in qualifications by quantity, says Geoff Parks, director of admissions at Cambridge, in a paper on the subject. That does not help the leading universities that largely recruit those who have shown they can secure high grades in three A-levels in one sitting over two years. An analysis done for Parks shows that only 31 per cent of those scoring 360 tariff points (equivalent to three As at A-level) actually obtained three As, the standard Cambridge offer. Three-quarters of those attending state schools got 360 tariff points but only 62 per cent of those gaining three As did so. "Thus basing benchmark calculations on... students' UCAS tariff points will significantly overestimate the benchmark figure for admission from the state sector," says Parks.

"The inescapable conclusion is that using UCAS tariff scoring is simply not a suitable way to identify students eligible for Cambridge admission, and therefore basing benchmark calculations on this is fundamentally flawed." Parks's points are endorsed by Oxford University, which is also seeking to recruit from the pool of applicants with three A grades at A-level. Both universities say that they are keen to widen participation and to recruit the best students, but they need to be sure that these people are going to be intellectually capable of undertaking an Oxford or Cambridge degree, and the UCAS points system does not help with that.

"While we acknowledge that people have done well to rack up 360 points on the UCAS tariff, we need the academic underpinning that is done by taking a full A-level and getting an A grade - and we would expect students to do that in two years," said a spokeswoman. "You can build up points on the UCAS tariff over a long period of time." Some universities are not paying too much attention to the benchmarks on the grounds that they cannot be penalised for failing to reach them. But others argue that the setting up of the Office for Fair Access, that will draw up access agreements with universities charging top-up fees, could mean that the benchmarks take on more significance.

Two London music colleges appear to do badly when it comes to recruiting state pupils. They are the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music. One of the reasons is that they take students from specialist schools such as Cheetham's, the Purcell School and the Menuhin School, which are technically independent but which contain a lot of state-funded pupils, according to Kevin Porter, secretary and registrar of the Royal College of Music. This year's benchmarks have upset a substantial number of institutions. Professor Alan Smithers, of Buckingham University's Centre for Education and Employment Research, said: "I think these benchmarks are misleading. They are being used as a form of pressure on the leading universities. That is bad enough but the fact that they're based on false premises makes it even worse. The universities should resist them with all the power at their disposal."

A Hefce spokesman said that the methodology for the benchmark had changed because this was the way that UCAS presented the information now. "This is UCAS's responsibility," he added. "Presumably UCAS consulted the institutions when they changed to the tariff."

l.hodges@independent.co.uk

Comments