Understanding ‘merit’ in university admissions
During my ten years as President of Dublin City University, one of the myths with a particular grip on Irish public discourse that I tried to demolish was the idea that universities had always admitted students to their courses purely on ‘merit’. In Ireland, then as now, students succeed in getting their preferred degree programme on the basis of their final school examinations (the Leaving Certificate), or rather on the basis of the points score they achieve through their exam results. The points needed to get on to your course is determined by supply and demand: the most popular programmes require the highest points. I have explained previously that this often results in academically easier subjects requiring higher points (i.e. better results), which has resulted in a system so amazingly stupid as to be almost unbelievable.
And yet, it is regularly defended, most frequently by those who argue that it is ‘objective’, that it is not open to influence or corruption, and that it recognises only merit. I was unable, I think, to change many people’s minds on this despite my best efforts. However, in one setting we did break the rigour of the points system, and that was in our access programme: students from disadvantaged backgrounds who were admitted under the university’s access scheme could get in on lower points than those demanded of students recruited through normal channels. This practice has more generally become known as ‘contextual admissions’, in which the context of the student applicant’s situation is taken into account when assessing their performance.
Contextual admissions, which have become more common also in UK universities (see this example), have recently been heavily criticised by the Sunday Telegraph newspaper. In an editorial comment under the heading ‘Universities must select on merit’, the newspaper argues:
‘This practice is unfair, and must be ended. Students should be admitted on the basis of their qualifications. A systematic policy of preferring less well-qualified students harms universities, just as it harms candidates who are rejected because their background is deemed “wrong”. The deficiencies of many state secondary schools are certainly a serious problem, but penalising pupils who have been lucky enough to receive a good education in the private sector does nothing to address them. In fact, the policy only conceals and entrenches the failures of the state school system.’
Fair comment? The Telegraph, both in its editorial and in an article elsewhere in the paper, makes the assumption that qualification based on exam results is an objective assessment of ability, and therefore that a willingness to take other factors into account corrupts the system and introduces a new discrimination based on background (the article suggests there is discrimination against ‘middle class children’). Leaving aside entirely whether you can really ignore unequal outputs from schools differentiated by very unequal levels of resourcing, one needs to overcome the false assumption that different entry requirements for university courses reflect their intellectual demands. They don’t. They reflect supply and demand, which is often the product of parental social ambitions. As a result, universities generally have been dominated by the wealthier sections of society, but more particularly certain degree programmes leading to qualification for elite professions such as law and medicine have been close to no-go areas for the disadvantaged.
There is, as most (including the Telegraph) recognise, clearly a problem with the school system and its less than perfect ability to provide equal opportunities for young people from all backgrounds. While this needs to be resolved in its own right, the effect it is having in the meantime on opportunities for some of the population cannot just be ignored. I would not support admitting students to courses in which they would be likely to fail. But I think we need to look again at how we assess both the demands of degree programmes and the ability of students to succeed. Ultimately this is in everyone’s interest.