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Articles > Money March, 13, 2012

University admissions need to look beyond grades

Aaron Porter
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We’ve all heard the headlines; over 100,000 qualified applicants have missed out on university places in the summers of 2010 and 2011, that pupils from private and selective schools still dominate the most selective universities and perhaps most shockingly that there are more Afro-Caribbean male students at London Metropolitan University compared with the entirety of all Russell Group universities put together.

Whilst few would dispute that universities perform a vital role in changing lives and stimulating social mobility, I want to argue that many of our most selective universities haven’t done enough to get students from non-traditional backgrounds through their doors. But crucially it means they are also missing out on students who have the potential to out-perform counterparts from more traditional backgrounds.

I want to stress that prior academic attainment should still be seen as central to the university application process. The ability of a student to perform in assessment is critical to giving any university an assurance that they will also be able to perform at university too. But without taking into account the context of the performance of a student, our universities are missing out on talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

At the moment, the overwhelming majority of universities only consider previous grades, predicted A levels (or equivalent) and a personal statement when deciding who to offer a place. Some universities also include an interview, and done in the right way this can be helpful, but for many it also acts as a barrier to many prospective students. So an applicant with AAB generally stands a better chance of getting offered a place at the most selective universities compared to someone holding just ABB, and at face value that just seems common sense.

However take a not so hypothetical situation. Is it really more of an achievement to attain AAB in a private school, with a staff-student ratio of 15:1 and a private tutor outside of school in the run up to A levels compared with another pupil securing ABB in a difficult comprehensive where the average in the school in CCC and the staff student ratio is 30:1? It’s surely at least arguable that the second is more of an achievement, and certainly an indication of greater potential in the second case. But more importantly put both those pupils in the same university and then think who might end up performing best after 3 years?

A study attempting to look at this very issue demonstrated that taking university applicants with the same grades but one from an independent school and the other from state schools in the bottom quartile, showed that if you then put those same pupils into the same university course the student from a state school would on average out-perform their previously independent schooled counterpart by as many as 7 degree points. Therefore you could quite easily make the case that students from particularly disadvantaged background could actually be offered a place with 1 or 2 lower A level grades (BBB instead of AAB for instance), and they would still on average at least match the performance of an independently schooled equivalent.

Now critics will scream that this is unfair social engineering and an affront to university admissions. But I would argue that this is the only way universities will actually get the very best students at the point of exit from university, and not simply at the point of admissions. Context matters, and the circumstances in which an applicant has secured their previous attainment should be taken into consideration.

I don’t doubt that there are huge complexities, but universities must start seriously considering how they can consider the context of their applicants to better judge what they are capable of achieving. Perhaps then we might start to see a more diverse range of students fortunate enough to study at the most selective universities who undoubtedly play such a crucial role in changing lives and setting graduates up for the world beyond formal education.

What do you think?

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  1. Catherine Tyley

    Yes and no. I’m from a state school, and finished my A Levels last year. I got 3A*s and 2As, along with a string of A*s at GCSE. I had 30+ person classes and I didn’t have a tutor just like most other state school pupils. I have offers from some fantastic universities and that’s because I’ve tried and because I want it. No doubt it’s easier for a student at a private school to achieve these grades than it is for somebody from a state school, but Universities don’t have the time or any method with which to quantify ‘potential’. Parents of private school students pay a large premium in order to give litte Cordelia and Tarquin the best chances of getting good grades, and getting into a good unversity and getting a good job. I don’t think it’s fair or productive to lower grade requirements for state school students. I do however, think that more weight should be placed on the personal statement and interview performance. As these are brilliant ways of determining a students passion and aptitude for the subject. Which in turn, is a round about way of measuring ‘potential’. However most universities do not interview. I was interviewed only for Oxford and Imperial. But not at any of my other choices; Durham, St Andrews and Manchester. And interesting, having come from a state school, I know more people holding offers for Oxford, than they do for Durham…

  2. Lexie Thorpe

    The problem with lowering grade offers, if its an enforced or widely-known practice, is that it feeds the divide between state and privately educated students. I’ve faced downright rudeness from some fellow students at my (Russell group) university because they hold the belief that state-school students are either uneducated or naturally stupid. Making it public that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are going to be given places on lower grades is not going to encourage students to apply; its going to harm their opinions of what they are capable of, and in some cases it may encourage students capable of getting A’s to slack off if they only need a B. Conversely, Warwick university, for one, lowers the grade offer on their psychology course from A to B for each science subject the applicant has studied. This is arguably more constructive as it actually encourages students to take harder subjects.

    When I applied to Durham, I found a list of every school in the country and a points score – higher points were given to state school, and higher points still to state school which were low down in the league tables, and this was used as another factor to consider in an application. I think something like this, given an appropriate weighting, would be far more effective than simply dropping grades.

  3. Alastair Thomson

    US Ivy League universities are certainly far from perfect – but in other respect, they’re streets ahead of the UK in showing that it’s possible to widen participation without compromising on quality and rigour around admissions.

  4. There has been plenty of research to suggest that A’level results are not a good predictor of degree results and yet we continue to use these as a basis for entry to higher education. Not only do we use them but also initial decisions are often made on predicted grades which have proved to be highly innacurate. Very few courses use alternative methods of assessment and even when they do they are not used consistently across the sector. The system is undoubtedly flawed and yet what is a viable alternative? Yes contextual data should be used and, to be fair, is being used by some (although not by all) HEIs. Maybe we should move even further? There are few academics that I have met who believe that A’levels prepare a student for higher education. Maybe we should consider the skills higher education wants to see in their applicants and then redesign the current qualification system in its entirety?

  5. J

    I’d just like some clarification. When you say “Afro-Caribbean male students”, do you mean students of African AND Caribbean descent, or just black Caribbean? If you mean the former, I’d prefer it if you used the expression “African-Caribbean”.

    And in fact, if you mean black students, then don’t be afraid to just say it. It’s much clearer to readers.

  6. Emma Rose

    I feel like this is written by someone who has seen the headlines, but has not done appropriate research on the subject. Universities look at mitigating circumstances and context when doing admissions. It isn’t simply about grades, it isn’t simply about the personal statement, and it isn’t simply about how you do in the interview. You have essentially argued for something that is all ready a consideration.

    ‘But more importantly put both those pupils in the same university and then think who might end up performing best after 3 years?’
    A-level grades become irrelevant when you get to university. You could be the best in your school but be middling in university. You can’t really discriminate and say whether a private or state school student will fare better at university. You imply that the state school student will do better; I think it all depends on context (was that not your argument?!)
    I cannot say anything about the study, because you didn’t reference it!

    There is no point in partaking in your survey question above because universities DO use contextual data to aid admissions. They certainly did in 2008/09 when I applied to university…

  7. Khan

    Dear Sir,

    I admire your sincere intentions, but you fail to tackle the real issue. The issue is how can we provide a better education provided by the State. Not how should we lower the barriers so that more students can get into the Russel Group universities.

    It is not the universities’ fault that a child has received a sub-standard education for 18 years, and it should not be forced upon them to take students who they believe may struggle on their respective course.

    We may need a change in how universities select their future students, but your solution, in so far as judging a student by looking at contextual data, is already in place.

    They also have admissions test for entry into the most competitive courses at the most competitive institutions. Research has shown that performance on these exams has eliminated the advantage private school students have, as they are a test of potential, rather than knowledge. The were no differences in scores between the average privately educated applicant and the average applicant from a state school.

    I shall give you an example from my own experience. Last year I finished my A levels at a FE college, and achieved ABC respectively. I was predicted A*A*A, but due to mitigating circumstances, I failed to meet my predicted grades and I missed out on my offers for university.

    I decided to retake my A levels and re-apply to university for the 2012 entry. I wish to read Law at university, as I’m sure you’re aware, competition is fierce.

    I called up several non Russel Group institutions and they told me that I may apply, but I will be asked to achieve A*A*A or more(their entry requirements are A*AA).

    After much research I decided to apply for Cambridge, Nottingham, UCL, LSE and Exeter.

    Cambridge decided to interview me and I currently hold an offer from Clare college to read law from October next year, subject to me receiving A*AA in my summer exams. I also hold an offer from Exeter(AAB). Exeter’s normal entry requirements are AAA, but after looking at my application, decided to make a lower offer. It is fine for an institution to make a lower offer, if it is done out of their own accord. A friend of mine also from a state school has an offer from Nottingham(AAB), again it is lower because the university understood that he went to a school were the average grades were pretty low.

    Your article was insightful, and I’m pleased people are taking notice of the struggle that many bright state school students face when it comes to applying.

    Universities already look at contextual evidence, and it should be up to them if they choose to make a lower offer, not the governments. I think they should introduce more entrance exams as a way of ascertaining which students really have the potential to study their chosen courses.

    Yours faithfully,