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University admissions need to look beyond grades March 13, 2012

Posted by AaronPorter in Higher Education.
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University admissions need to look beyond grades


March, 13, 2012


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.

Thu 10 Nov: Guardian HE Network – Birmingham revives Aimhigher and core and margin pricing: first or fail? November 10, 2011

Posted by AaronPorter in First or Fail, Higher Education.
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Birmingham revives Aimhigher and core and margin pricing: first or fail?

At a time when universities are being coerced by the coalition toward competition, it’s great to see that the spirit of collaboration lives on in Birmingham, says Aaron Porter


Bullring Birmingham

Selfridges at the Bullring, Birmingham city centre: universities in the second city have come together to continue the AimHigher widening participation programme. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Heading for a First … Birmingham Aimhigher

Definitely worthy of a first is news that AimHigher has been reborn in Birmingham as a joint venture between Aston, Birmingham City, University College Birmingham and the University of Birmingham. To date, one of the most counter-productive coalition cuts has been to the AimHigher programme, a dedicated activity with schools to encourage young people to consider higher education. At a time of trebled fees, difficult graduate employment and the removal of the education maintenance allowance, there couldn’t be a more important time to salvage such activity, particularly as we learnt just last week that the initial figures for 2012 university applications give cause for concern.

When AimHigher funding was withdrawn, it was such a blow. But news from the second city that the universities had come together to salvage the activity is a rare piece of good news. It’s also worth noting that a number of other cities have also managed to bring their higher education institutions together to set up similar arrangements, such as AccessHE in London. At the last count, this brings together 20 institutions. But in truth, aside from a handful of cities, it appears that many institutions have not been able to retain a collaborative AimHigher-style programme. And it’s great to see that in Birmingham the four universities have managed to retain the AimHigher brand.

At a time when universities are being coerced by the coalition toward competition, it’s great to see that the spirit of collaboration can still live on. And when it comes to widening access and promoting participation, there can be more no greater issue worthy of institutions coming together.

Heading for a Fail … Core and margin

News this week that 27 higher education inistiutions have applied to lower their prices is hardly surprising given the dogs dinner the government has made of setting out their higher education strategy. While at first glance it may seem like good news for prospective students, on further analysis it raises some more concerning questions.

As a consequence of the government getting its higher education sums badly wrong, the core and margin model has been introduced in a desperate attempt to force some universities to lower their prices. But, depressingly for me, the courses or institutions lowering their prices are doing so not necessarily because what they are providing isn’t up to scratch, but rather because their perceived reputation may not be high. Worse still, these are decisions not based on what it actually costs to teach a particular course, but manipulated to suit the Treasury finances.

Then consider the socio-economic backgrounds of the students likely to be forced into courses on £7,500 or less, and the backgrounds of students still likely to proceed on to degrees at £9,000 per year. The idea that students from richer backgrounds will have more spent on them, while those from more deprived backgrounds are slung into economy class stands against what higher education has, up until now, played such an important role in countering.

Rather than improving social mobility, there is a real danger that government miscalculations and an ideological bent on the market through mechanisms like core and margin will see a widening of disadvantage, rather than a closing of the gap.