Accessing the ivory tower

Tessa Stone asks how we can ensure fair admissions to university when the education system itself is not 'fair'.

Accessing higher educationThe Government’s recent interventions have breathed new life into the long-running debate about whether A-levels are fit for purpose. But the current sturm und drang about curriculum reform can feel like tinkering at the edges when we consider the rather more fundamental fact that the education that too many students receive is not fit for purpose and that, this being the case, their A-level grades often do not accurately reflect their academic potential. So while university academics are rightly exercised by the question of whether A-levels prepare students for university level study, they first have to confront the crucial question of how to achieve fair admissions to university in a context where the education system is not ‘fair’.

Putting it in context

In response to this problem we have seen the mushrooming of additional testing: in law (the LNAT) and medicine (the BMAT) as well as subject-specific tests at individual institutions. Interviewing, previously largely abandoned by all but Oxbridge, is on the rise again at universities across the country. And of course there is the much debated, and often maligned, use of ‘contextual data’, that varied set of indicators most often related to socio-economic and school background.

The political storm around the use of such data – ignited by Gordon Brown over the Laura Spence affair, and given new life this year by the breathtaking outpouring of media scaremongering about ‘dumbing down’ and ‘social engineering’ that greeted the appointment of the Vice Chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, Professor Les Ebdon, as the new Director of the Office for Fair Access – is something that, as a staunch advocate of contextual admissions, I would call on universities to counter, loudly and collectively.

Clear and consistent

However, I would also add a cautionary note from the perspective of potential students. They might be glad to know that any mitigating circumstances they might have faced are fully understood and taken into account when their application is being considered. And indeed, they would probably want to know which mitigating circumstances are being understood and taken into account, how, when, and to what end. Indeed, the Supporting Professionalism in Admissions programme, which promotes good practice in university admissions, sets out the principles for the use of contextual data thus: ‘[it] must be transparent to applicants and their advisors in terms of what contextual data is used, if any, how it will be used, when it is used and how it was used in the previous cycle.’

While there’s a long way to go before we achieve even that level of transparency, I’d like to take this argument a step further and argue that, for an applicant, it would also be good to know that those circumstances were understood, and taken into account, in the same way by each institution applied to.

As a former admissions tutor I am fully aware just how contentious this suggestion is, but I firmly believe that until we achieve both transparency and uniformity we will not end media scaremongering about dumbing down. And even if the number of people willing to argue for the desirability of the uniform application of contextual data is still relatively few and far between, it is imperative that we at least try and agree an unequivocally positive statement that decouples contextual admissions from any suggestion of lowered standards. Only this will take us not one but several steps closer to an admissions system which meets Professor Schwartz’s definition of fair admissions, namely to ‘provide equal opportunity for all individuals, regardless of background, to gain admissions to a course suited to their ability and aspirations’, and that is something I hope we could all agree is devoutly to be wished for.

Dr Tessa Stone is Chief Executive of the education charity Brightside, former Director of the Sutton Trust and was Admissions Tutor at Newnham College, Cambridge.

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