July 3, 2008
Why the Admissions System Has to Change
By Trevor Fisher
State schools and colleges are increasingly finding themselves trapped in no-man's land over admissions to the top universities. They are blamed for not preparing students properly to get into the research-intensive Russell Group universities. At the same time, league-table pressures, and the fact that their students are opting for the non-traditional A-level subjects that they enjoy, make it harder for them to meet the demands of admissions tutors.
The Chancellor of Oxford, Lord Patten, argued recently that colleges and schools are to blame for low participation from the state sector. Last year only 53 per cent of students admitted to Oxford were from state schools, the lowest proportion of any university. He said that low aspirations and the failure to stay on after 16 were to blame for low admissions and that Oxford would not relax its policy of requiring three A grades at A-level.
The issue is not that state students fail to get three A grades. Research from the Institute for Public Policy Research shows that 36 per cent of students with three A grades are from the private sector, yet 47 per cent of successful candidates at Oxford come from independent schools. According to the IPPR co-director, Lisa Harker, state school students getting three A grades at A-level are "significantly under-represented at both universities [Oxford and Cambridge]". So the problem is not that state students don't achieve three grade As - indeed, even students with four A grades cannot be sure of gaining access to the elite universities.
People advising applicants from the state sector find themselves in an Orwellian world where the rules change according to who is making them. First, top universities make increasingly arbitrary decisions, particularly over "hard" subjects such as physics and "soft" subjects such as film studies. Second, politicians press ahead with a permanent revolution in exams and curricula, undermining the credibility of what state schools teach.
Admissions tutors complain, justifiably, that the plethora of A grades at A-level mean that they cannot tell who the really bright students are. So, they devise a complex array of tests to distinguish the brightest from the merely bright. Law and medicine are subject to LNAT and BMAT tests by most of the Russell Group universities. Individual universities and faculties devise their own rules.
In June, Sir Richard Sykes, the Rector of Imperial College London, announced that Imperial was planning its own admissions test, creating the nightmare prospect of exams set by every elite university according to their own rules. Grade inflation was to blame, he said. Imperial is to trial a new test which he hopes to apply in 2010.
The significance of 2010 is that this is the year when the Government's new A-star grade is to come in. Imperial's plan may be the first sign of rejection of the Government's flagship A-level reform. It is certainly a sign that elite universities have a different agenda from the Government. The Government, in fact, claims that the A-level is an adequate discriminator of ability and rejects the idea that there are hard and soft A-levels, still less that there has been grade inflation. More controversially, it holds to the idea that all Level 3 qualifications are equally suitable for university admission, including vocational subjects and the new Diplomas.
The elite universities publicly agree - and privately disagree. They set their own tests and are suspicious of new subjects. Cambridge and the LSE have produced blacklists of "soft" subjects. This is at least clear-cut. Other universities are rumoured to have informal blacklists, particularly of newer subjects such as media studies. Alas, these are increasingly popular in the state sector, and are given increased weight by funding mechanisms that eliminate traditional subjects such as Latin, Greek and modern languages.
The system is almost bound to fail applicants from the state sector. The Government insists that there is nothing wrong. But admissions tutors reject this view and set up obscure hurdles for students to overcome. State schools are forced, by funding and league-table pressures, to favour popular subjects even if they know elite universities discriminate against them. But in many cases they are unaware of the arbitrary decisions of admissions tutors. It is no surprise that the top private schools cream off places at the elite universities.
Caught in the fire of two diametrically opposed camps, the state sector is in a no-win situation. In the short term, it would be valuable to save the Advanced Extension Award and restore funding to the International Baccalaureate. But in the long run the system of admission to elite universities, based on A-level, is breaking down. Elite universities are abandoning A-levels. Before the system breaks down completely we need to take a serious look at what has gone wrong. It is time for a Royal Commission on university admissions.
The writer is head of A-level history and a personal tutor at a Midlands tertiary college
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