Steven Schwartz: We need to be creative in our approach to admissions

From a speech by the chairman of the university admissions taskforce to the Social Market Foundation
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The Independent Online

Who should attend selective universities? How do we guarantee merit and fairness in the admissions process? The government paper on admissions suggests that universities should be free to set their own admission criteria and choose their own selection techniques.

UCAS has suggested that admissions officers and tutors should receive formal training for their role, and UCAS has now announced the launch of a training program. The law demands that admissions decisions should not discriminate against applicants because of their race, religion, ethnic background, sexual orientation, or disability.

Almost everyone would agree that admission decisions should be based on merit. But the problem comes when we try to define it. Merit could mean admitting students with the highest marks or it could take into account the obstacles that a student had to overcome.

The American Century Foundation has argued that high marks may mean more for first generation university students from low-income families and struggling schools than for the children of professionals with extensive coaching. Considering such factors is controversial. Yet there are proponents. And an admission process that considers obstacles may have good outcomes. A Harvard study found that blue-collar graduates were the most financially successful.

Once we are clear on the characteristics of a fair system, we must then ask whether it is good to try to widen access to all those in society who can benefit from higher education. Different people will have different views. Some may think that widening participation to 50 per cent or more of all people is hopelessly utopian; yet some countries seem to manage it. Indeed, Australian universities have a 60 per cent target.

It is interesting to note that positive discrimination in favour of poor students has not been tried in the elite American Ivy League institutions. Even with racial affirmative action, 75 per cent of Ivy League students come from the top quartile of the income distribution and only 3 per cent from the bottom quartile.

In an attempt to widen participation, several American states have begun to promise admission to the top 5 per cent or 10 per cent in each school's graduating class. The states differ in the details but the idea is to capitalise on school segregation. Because there are many all black schools, taking the top 10 per cent of every school ensures diversity in the student body.This will lower entry standards, which will offend many academics.

There are many differing opinions. One thing is certain, we will need to be creative in our approach to admissions, looking at the issues in an open and unprejudiced way. We need to get the question of university admissions right not just for the sake of the students, but also for the sake of the country.