Posted tagged ‘contextual admissions’

Is it misguided to lower entry requirements for disadvantaged students?

May 29, 2017

So-called ‘contextual admissions’ are becoming an increasingly accepted method for mitigating educational disadvantage: students without the benefit of an elite school education may be allowed lower entry requirements for their chosen university courses. However, the Independent reports that in a recent survey of Russell Group undergraduates, 63 per cent thought that ‘lower entry grades for disadvantaged students could be perceived as patronising’. Instead they thought that additional resources should be used to support potential students at secondary level so they can achieve better GCSE and A-level results (in England).

For once I would hope that this particular student view is not followed. Educational disadvantage is deeply rooted in socio-economic disadvantage, and this will not be corrected by spending a little more money on some A-level students. If we are serious about access to higher education, we need to look flexibly at the achievements students carry to the end of the secondary school experience; and if we have additional resources, we need to apply them to student support and care once they have entered university. That isn’t patronising, it is making a contribution to correcting injustice.

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University admissions in context

November 5, 2013

A couple of years ago I had a conversation with a middle aged businessman who told me that he was the first person in his wider family ever to have gone to university. Coming from a family of modest means, he had been fired up by the adventure of learning and, having passed all his examinations with very high marks, he eventually entered a top university. He went on to make a fortune in business. As he told me all this, he mused that he was the only one of his class to get to university; and in fact it took another eight years for anyone else from his school to go that way.

It is of course not difficult to grasp why some schools send so few students into higher education. A school with inadequate resources, shabby looking classrooms, inadequate or no science or language labs – and most of all, a lack of ambition – will not compete with well resourced private schools that will expect all of their pupils to go on to get a degree. And yet many will argue that the criteria for higher education admission should be blind to this fact, and should accept only those who meet the institution’s entry requirements; anything else would be social engineering and would undermine standards, as those admitted with lesser qualifications would struggle to cope.

As it happens, recently published evidence shows that disadvantaged students admitted to a university, having lower grades than those applying normally, will in fact often out-perform more privileged students by the time they get to their examinations. The practice known as ‘contextual admission’ is therefore  a useful tool in the box of those wanting to erode the discriminatory effect of schooling.

Contextual admissions are not a radical step designed to undermine the aspirations of middle class students and their parents. Rather they are a genuine effort by the higher education system to correct the discriminatory effect within higher education of poverty and deprivation. Many universities now routinely use such admissions methods, leading to not just a fairer system but, it appears, an intellectually superior one.

Understanding ‘merit’ in university admissions

August 6, 2012

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.