More blues for Oxbridge?

Government benchmarks for universities' state-school intake caused a furore last year - and nothing has changed to stop next week's league tables being as incendiary.

By Lucy Hodges
Monday 29 April 2013 03:47

Covering drop-out rates, state-school intake and graduate employment, the indicators are the Government's attempt to put the spotlight on how universities are performing on some of their cherished ideas.

Last year, there was an outcry about the league table for state-school entry, due to a sudden change in the way universities' benchmarks were calculated. It meant that Oxford and Cambridge were expected to take 77 per cent of entrants from state schools, compared with their former targets of 69 and 68 per cent respectively.

Working out a benchmark for the proportion of state-school pupils that each university should admit involves a complicated mathematical calculation. In the past, it has taken account of the number of 18 year olds with the required A-levels in the pool of applicants. It estimates what percentage of those would be expected to go to a given university to study a particular subject. The aim is to give the public an idea of whether the likes of Oxford or Cambridge are drawing on the full range of talent in the population or whether they are sticking to their old elitist ways.

Last year, instead of taking into account A-level grades, the benchmarks were based on the new Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) points score. The Ucas tariff was reformed for the highest of motives - to do away with the divide between vocational and academic qualifications that has bedevilled the nation. It means that young people can accumulate points during a period of time for a host of qualifications including A-levels, AS levels, NVQs and Btech diplomas. In other words, they gain points for vocational as well as academic qualifications.

Not surprisingly, many more young people can tot up an impressive points score via this route. That is why the benchmarks for some universities have been increased - because so many more students would be expected to get the full 360 points, rather than the old three As at A-levels, that Oxford and Cambridge require. Oxbridge and other universities complained. First, they had not been informed of the change. Second, they regarded it as silly and flawed because the top universities in the country need candidates with the best A-levels, not with NVQs and Btechs gathered over a period of time.

Geoff Parks, the director of admissions at Cambridge, did an analysis which showed that only 31 per cent of those scoring 360 tariff points (equivalent to three As at A-level) 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," said 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."

A furore ensued. Michael Beloff, the president of Trinity College, Oxford, called on the Government to "take its tanks off Oxford's lawns" and predicted that Oxford would go private in 20 years rather than succumb to Government regulation. And Chris Patten, the Chancellor of Oxford University, added his voice to the ruckus. The Government's "appalling policy" of forcing universities to take more state-school pupils was a serious threat to a free society, he said.

Ministers were forced on to the defensive. Kim Howells, the former higher education minister, at a Universities UK conference on university admissions, said that he would keep an "open mind" over the benchmarks for university admissions. "I'm fully prepared to look at this question," he said. "I have got a completely open mind about this and I'm going to look at it."

Everyone expected the admissions benchmarks to be scrapped. Baroness Diana Warwick, the chief executive of Universities UK - the umbrella group for the higher education sector - said: "I think it's sensible to look at it again."

The result was that the Higher Education Funding Council for England's (Hefce) performance indicator steering group went away and examined the issue. But it will announce next week that it has decided to stick with the methodology that the experts claim is flawed and misleading. "The problem we found was that you can't go back and recreate the old benchmarks, because the data is no longer there," says John Rushforth, who chairs the steering group.

"This was a review that said, 'Right, people are worried about the benchmarks. Let's have a look at a range of options to resolve this'. We looked at bits and pieces to see if you could come up with a proxy, but because the data isn't available as A-level results for individual candidates, you get an aggregate tariff."

Representatives of the universities expressed amazement that Hefce had been unable to scrap the benchmarks given the political row last year. A spokeswoman for Oxford said the university was still unhappy with them. "We don't think they're a fair representation of what we can or should be achieving for state school intake," she says. "You can gather tariff points in all sorts of ways and not all these are appropriate for an institution like ours. We need people to do a few things to a very high level rather than a lot of things to not such a high level."

Because the new admissions benchmark is now relatively meaningless, Oxford will be calculating its own benchmark for applications based on the qualifications that it requires, said the spokeswoman.

Professor Michael Sterling, vice-chancellor of Birmingham University and chairman of the Russell Group of universities, said he was surprised there had been no change in the method of calculating the benchmarks "given that it's a flawed basis for ensuring the suitability of a candidate for university entrance". Why should people who have acquired qualifications in vehicle repair and cake decorating be included in the calculations for benchmarks to get into the best universities, he asked?"We need to turn out top quality graduates," he says. "If you take in students who are not qualified, they are going to fail or you are going to dumb down the standard of your degrees."

Other critics pointed out that the flawed methodology meant that the very existence of such benchmarks was brought into disrepute. "The purpose of a benchmark is to enable an indicator to be interpreted in context," said Bahram Bekhradnia, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and former policy director of Hefce.

"If the benchmarks are inappropriate, then they are not doing the job they are supposed to be doing. By and large, benchmarks are valuable and serve a useful purpose but, because the underlying data has changed, they are not doing the job they could do."

Professor Drummond Bone, vice-chancellor of Liverpool University and president of Universities UK, thought it would be best if Hefce dropped this benchmark altogether. "If the indicator is seriously faulty, my preference would be to abandon it," he says.

"However, understanding the political pressure for such indicators, I suppose if you can't change it, you are better to stick where you are."

Apart from Oxbridge, the music conservatoires also do badly in the state-school intake league table. The Royal Academy of Music was told last year that it should be taking 88.7 per cent of state-school pupils, when it took only 56.8 per cent. One of the reasons is that it recruits students from specialist schools such as Cheetham's, Purcell and the Menuhin schools. These are technically independent, but contain a lot of state-funded pupils.

Curtis Price, the Academy's principal, is strongly in favour of trying to take more students from state schools but believes that the benchmarks are meaningless. "We are concerned and determined to increase the number of students coming to the Academy from state schools and deprived areas," he said. "We are trying extremely hard but it's the state schools that are failing our kids."

State-school entry: the row in a nutshell

Why are universities protesting?

Because the Government agency has moved the goalposts. It used to calculate the benchmark for each university - the percentage of state students they should be taking - on the basis of A-level grades. But with the advent of the new Ucas tariff, which enables students to gather points from A-levels, AS levels, NVQs and Btech diplomas, the benchmarks have increased.

Why are Oxford and Cambridge so cross?

Their benchmarks have moved the most. They are criticised for their low state-school intake but they have been improving. Now the new benchmarks, meaningless for the kind of student they need, show them as elitist as ever.

Wasn't the furore going to be solved last year?

Yes, but Hefce found it couldn't revert to the old benchmarks because the data wasn't there.

So does that mean we are stuck with meaningless benchmarks?

Looks like it.

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