Leading article: Schwartz has got it right

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The Independent Online

Professor Steven Schwartz's long-awaited report on university admissions seeks to introduce some much-needed change to the current system. Finally we have a government-backed paper saying categorically that admissions based on predicted rather than actual grades at A-level are unfair. The system uses data that is not reliable (50 per cent of students don't achieve their predicted grades), it is not transparent for applicants or institutions, and it may present barriers to students who lack self confidence.

No other country has been able to understand why we operate such an arcane system. Experts have been advocating reform for years, but it has taken the American-born vice-chancellor of Brunel University (who has lived in Australia most of his adult life) to advocate a new system based on actual A-level grades. It will mean exam boards will have to shave a week or two off the marking period, universities may have to delay term by a week and the school year may have to be changed slightly. But these things can be done if the will is there. Thank goodness, it looks as though the political will is there in abundance. The Secretary of State for Education, Charles Clarke, welcomed the recommendations and has already set up a group to implement them. It may take time, he said, hedging his bets, but it looks as though the change will happen eventually.

Professor Schwartz's exhortation to universities to give preference to students from minority backgrounds is also welcome, though positive discrimination in education has to be handled with caution. Public exams were introduced to get away from a system in which the aristocracy got jobs through nepotism. We don't want to replace them with a system in which candidates are turned down because they went to a private school. Schwartz is careful to say that no student should be given preferential treatment based on their background. He is right to say that. He is also right to spell out the rationale for a more diverse student body. Diversity brings educational benefits, because students learn not only from their tutors but from one another, he argues. Exposing students to peers from different backgrounds can be seen as an important part of their education. Schwartz is no left winger (far from it). Those who accuse him of social engineering would do well to read his argument and ponder it.

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