Posted tagged ‘university admissions’

University admissions: abandoning examinations altogether?

September 12, 2011

As debates continue on this side of the Atlantic about what kind of final school examination most nearly predicts university performance and thus constitutes the best admissions test, in the United States some universities are abandoning entrance exams altogether. DePaul University in Chicago has stopped using the standards US entrance exams (the ACT and SAT) and is now basing decisions on interviews and essay and project work. The response to this has been sceptical, with commentators concluding that this represents a serious dumbing down. Whether this is so or not, it highlights the uncertainty that exists around how to design university entrance criteria. No country has probably yet got this right.

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University admissions: time to re-think the criteria

February 7, 2011

This is going to sound very grand, but over the past few years I have been trying to persuade the education sector and politicians of two things: the socially undesirable and financially unsustainable nature of ‘free’ higher education that is not adequately funded; and the damage being inflicted on Ireland by the Leaving Certificate examination (the Irish final school exam).

I want to focus briefly on one aspect of the second of these, the Leaving Certificate. I believe that, having once been quite innovative, it is now a thoroughly flawed exam with a wholly unsatisfactory curriculum attached to it. But it is also more or less the sole basis on which school leavers are admitted to university, so that the whole sad heap of its inadequacies infects higher education. There is an urgent need to reform the Leaving Certificate, but one way of advancing that agenda is to decouple it completely from university admissions.

There are many reasons for doing this, but the three most important are the following. First, the Leaving Certificate tests all the wrong skills and therefore doesn’t prepare students for higher education. Secondly, students make inappropriate subject choices in secondary school based on what examinations in those subjects will do to help them into university; let us stop that. Thirdly, the Leaving Certificate fuels the points system, with its mad impact on career choices.

In other countries, notably Britain, there is some evidence that using final school exams for university entrance purposes reinforces inequalities and condems students from disadvantaged backgrounds and minorities.

It would be more appropriate and also fairer to set minimum entry requirements for all subjects, and then apply a lottery system to all those where demand outstrips supply. That would allow us, at last, to stop the deeply flawed pedagogy of the school system from undermining our society and our economy. It is time to take this problem seriously.

Student selection and social engineering

January 7, 2010

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.