Universities are agonising over the issue of ‘fair admissions’ in response to demands that more disadvantaged youngsters should be given access to higher education.
But what is meant by ‘fair’? One person’s ‘fair access’ is the denial of a place to another. Do existing ‘widening participation’ initiatives go far enough? Are all universities attempting to engage youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds?
I am passionate about my students, not as targets to fill quotas, but as young people. I know my students. We have nurtured them for seven years and we know their potential. We want them get on the right course at the right university.
University numbers are increasing and proportionally more students from disadvantaged backgrounds are going to university. This is good - but is there a price to pay? Are universities tempted to focus on popular courses and those that are cheaper to deliver? Essential science and engineering courses are expensive!
All of us, in schools and universities, have to work harder to encourage able youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds to aspire to university. Guidance must begin in primary schools if aspiration is to be nurtured - and here universities can help.
Schools must help universities too. We must give honest predictions of A level performance, and write honest references of students’ potential to help admissions tutors make fair decisions on offers.
But we need absolute clarity on what is meant by ‘facilitating subjects’. We need honesty about which combinations are ‘preferred’ and more likely to lead to an offer. There must be no secret garden of unwritten criteria, leaving an outstanding student without offers.
Just what do universities look for? At my school, we offer students a huge range of activities in our co-curriculum. We use sport, music, drama, dance, outdoor and residential education to develop character and promote self-esteem. But at a university admissions seminar, an admissions tutor said students shouldn’t “waste their time” on such things!
And how important is the personal statement? Knowing the care with which they are crafted, I was disturbed when I heard an admissions tutor say that he doesn’t even read it, since “they are cut and pasted from websites”. Others more wisely re-consider it when a student just misses their offer.
And do universities focus on past attainments, or future predicted performance? How important are GCSE and AS grades - and subjects? Are schools A level predictions valued, or dismissed as hopelessly inaccurate and overly optimistic?
Universities have begun to use contextual data and factors to fairly allocate places. But are these fair and appropriate? I understand postcode, but what is meant by ‘school type’? Grammar? Academy? ‘Outstanding’? How does this affect the offer? Are independent school students assumed to be economically advantaged? Many on scholarships are not.
And what is meant by ‘school quality’? Is it fair that those at ‘successful’ institutions are denied access to HE, the places going to those attending less well-regarded schools?
Contextual data must be used intelligently and transparently.
To widen participation and identify disadvantaged students, our school references are the best source of data. Should such students then benefit from differentiated offers? It is controversial - as parents whose children benefit from current advantage rarely see merit in alternative advantage for others.
So what should universities do to make the system fairer?
University outreach work must be progressive, sustained, properly resourced - and must start in primary schools. It is not enough to visit some nice sixth forms, give a lecture, or send a couple of freshers to ‘sell’ your institution.
Universities need to work together in a region and build a planned programme, perhaps with Teaching Schools as the hubs. This would help to improve schools, encourage youngsters to aspire to university, and forge links to enhance their reputation locally and nationally.
At a university seminar, I was appalled to hear a delegate dismiss state schools in a particular region as “rubbish”. The city concerned has three universities. Why not make a commitment to help - to engage with schools and school pupils?
Why not make it an entry requirement to a university that every undergraduate will give half a day a week for just one term to supporting schools? Supporting literacy by listening to children read, or helping with sport and PE in primary schools. Or languages, drama, or musical expertise in secondary schools? Most of my sixth form would be attracted to a university making such a commitment.
It would need to be structured - and funded. It might not be ‘fair’ to every child in the land, but it could transform literacy and attainment in our schools.
It would create a positive attitude towards universities in the minds of our most disadvantaged youngsters. It would enhance social mobility. And it would help recruitment into the teaching profession as students experienced the excitement of working with youngsters.
I want students in my school to decide whether university is right for them, whether a course will take them to the next stage of their learning journey, and which university is best suited to them and their aspirations.
I want university admissions to be fair. I want students to be offered places for the learning potential they bring, and for it not to depend on their social background or which school they attended.