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?