Peter Lampl: We need a new test for university entry

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The Independent Online

The recommendations in this week's Schwartz report on university admissions could prompt a revolution in higher education. It contains the seeds of an admissions system that is more transparent, more professional and, most important, fairer for students.

Only 12 of the 30 per cent of young people who live in poor areas participate in higher education (the national average is 43 per cent). When it comes to top universities, state school students are the real victims of the admissions system. State school students, particularly those from less privileged backgrounds, are flagrantly underrepresented at the top dozen universities. Based on their A-level performance, 3,000 more (10 per cent of the intake) should be admitted each year.

For the Sutton Trust - a charity that I chair, which provides educational opportunities for students from non-privileged backgrounds - there is much to welcome in this review, but there are two recommendations I believe to be of particular importance. The first is the proposal that we move to a post-qualification admissions (PQA) system, where students apply to university after they have received their A-level or equivalent results. For the students whom the Sutton Trust helps - those who may be the first in their family to go to university or who attend schools with low rates of progression to higher education - it will give them the confidence to apply for the course and institution most suited to their talents. For admissions tutors, PQA will minimise the guesswork they must resort to now. Overall, it should increase applications to top universities and the intake of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Second, I am glad the report is recommending a trial of the US-style SAT. The past few years have seen a mushrooming of additional tests designed by universities to help them choose between candidates with identically excellent A-level grades or to identify candidates whose A-level results may not be accurately reflect their suitability for a particular university or course. While this proliferation of tests is understandable in the current circumstances, it acts against the transparency which forms the backbone of the report's recommendations. Worse, it risks restricting access for applicants put off by the complication and stress of taking a different test for every university they apply to.

The need for a universal test is urgent. Two research trials of the SAT undertaken by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and funded by the Sutton Trust have shown its potential, finding that the SAT measures something different from A-levels, and is easily transferable to the UK. Particularly interesting is that in below-average performing schools, five per cent of the sample scored well enough on the SAT to be considered by a top university - yet only one of them achieved the three As at A-level required by our most selective courses.The fine-tuning the SAT allows - it gives students a score out of 1,600 and a percentile ranking - would enable admissions tutors to choose between a number of candidates with equivalent A-level grades. At the other end of the spectrum, the SAT was able to identify candidates who did not have the entry requirements for Dundee University but who were successful in Dundee's eight-week summer school, entitling them to a place.

There is an additional, strategic reason for adopting the SAT. Internationally, the SAT is the most recognised and administered test for university entry. Our higher education institutions compete for students in the global market, and it surely makes sense for us to adopt the oldest and most widely used test so that we are full and equal players on the international scene.

A Mori poll of secondary-school teachers showed support for post-qualification admissions and a SAT-type aptitude test running at 2:1. The Sutton Trust does not underestimate the extent of these changes, nor the likely resistance, but it is a nettle we have to grasp if we are to see our universities, and students, flourish in the 21st century.

Sir Peter Lampl is a member of the Government's Admissions Task Force, and the chairman of the Sutton Trust