Student selection and social engineering

A big row has broken out in Britain over the UK government’s policy on student admissions to the country’s universities. The Business Secretary, Peter Mandelson, reportedly called on higher education institutions to ‘look beyond raw exam results when selecting applicants’. This is part of a broader UK government policy encouraging universities to use ‘contextual data’ in the admissions process. That of course is the cue for the Daily Mail newspaper to come forward with its view, and let me tell you that it doesn’t like what the government is looking for, not one little bit. And why? Because Lord Mandelson is clearly being horrid to the unfortunate middle classes; or as their headline writer puts it: ‘Middle-class students face university place struggle as Mandelson backs giving poorer students two-grade ‘head start”. And also, they take the view that any framework that recognises background and context will be at the expense of real excellence, and therefore will amount to dumbing down.

As for me, I find nothing particularly remarkable about what Peter Mandelson is reported to have said. Access programmes in Irish universities have long allowed access students – i.e. students from disadvantaged backgrounds -to  enter colleges with lower points than would be required for others, provided they meet minimum entry requirements. This has not produced any ‘dumbing down’ in that access students have on the whole out-performed their non-access fellow students, probably in part because they become highly motivated.

Nevertheless, if contextual data are to be used more widely for student admissions they will create operational problems, as making use of such information can be very time-consuming. A good illustration of that can be seen in this article which outlines the selection methods used by Oxford University. The large number of interviews conducted, for example, would be unmanageable for institutions that don’t have the special funding and resources enjoyed by Oxford and Cambridge.

All of this can however serve to remind us that a purely examination results-driven admissions system has one sure aspect: the best predictor of success in seeking entry to the university programme of your choice is not your documented school performance but rather your address. If you come from a strongly middle class area (like, say, much of Dublin 4) then you will get to do what you want at university, because the public and private resources available to you as you go through school will be so much greater than those available to people from poorer districts.

I have previously argued that the CAO points system is increasingly counter-productive. We need to put together a whole new way of  selecting students for higher education, that matches social needs and national policy ambitions.

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9 Comments on “Student selection and social engineering”

  1. Vincent Says:

    If in a nut-shell I put the kernel of Oxbridge entry requirements, I would call it Bloodymindedness. For once you have their minimum and you get in they actively expect you to Doubt every damn thing.
    This is the exactly what is driven out of the State school student, and the system here does exactly the same. This is the real error of the point system.

    Oh, I have sometimes thought that entry to Medicine and those other high point courses should have been allocated in the same way as the electoral constituency, from persons and schools within the borders. Or open the darn thing up totally, such that All the Universities can mint new medics in what ever numbers they wish.

  2. belfield Says:

    Perhaps it’s the increasingly jaded academic in me, but I can’t help thinking that once people with no reason to worry about who will actually end up doing the ‘putting together’ start talking about putting together ‘a whole new way’ of anything, it’s people like me who end up getting it in the neck. Or worse. Still, you’re probably right about the need for deliberation around this question of contextual data.

    I’d agree that access schemes work superbly when they are well funded and well-integrated into the life of a college.

    Not sure if your second and more important point about contextual data – the cost of using it properly – carries the same quotability factor as your earlier one. And in the less than perfect world of Irish higher education politics, where attention to detail can be a bit light, this might be problematic.

    Of course, the papers could have fun with it too: ‘Gadget Man says Scrap CAO…’

    Though probably not the one we read over here in D4 🙂

  3. Perry Share Says:

    A modest proposal: When the Irish government finally introduces postcodes it should be possible to allocate university places based simply on applicants’ addresses – this will save all the unnecessary money that is currently spent on the Leaving and Junior Certs, private school fees, grind schools, the CAO, Higher Options, Admissions offices &c. No doubt the funds can be put some better use, and secondary school educators will be able to spend their time on far more interesting topics and activities.

  4. belfield Says:

    Perry, I sincerely hope you’re not suggesting that Wild Ruckus like the SUAS / TCD Bridge to College ( would become the norm?

    Thought as a more common-sense alternative to your proposal, we could simply introduce some sort of pick ‘n’mix style undergrad thingy followed by a taught graduate thingy and then maybe even a structured postgrad thingy and simply charge everyone who wants one full-cost fees. That should sort it.

    Though maybe to finish it off we should call the whole thing after some lesser known European city like Modena or Ravenna so it has a sort of sensible ring to it; ‘The Modena Process’ sounds creditable, for example.

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