Posted tagged ‘university entrance’

A testing time for university admissions

September 21, 2015

In higher education there are few things as difficult, as potentially controversial and (as some might argue) as habitually misleading as the examinations that secure access to university courses. In the not-too-distant past many universities that considered themselves to be part of an elite conducted their own tests as a basis for admission decisions. But over time these examinations disappeared, particularly as in several countries standardised admissions procedures were developed across the whole university sector. So for example the University of Cambridge discontinued its own entrance exam in 1986.

This produced a situation in which the final school examinations, typically run by the state, determined university admissions. In the United States of America the equivalent standardised test – the SAT (originally the ‘Scholastic Aptitude Test’, now just SAT) – is run by a private non-profit organisation, but is accepted by the entire higher education system.

The advantage of a nation-wide standard test is that it provides an apparently objective and comparable basis for university admissions decisions; everyone applying has done the same test and has been graded according to the same guidelines and standards, across the whole country and in applications to all institutions.

Of course that only works if the credentials of the examination and the usefulness of the results it produces are widely accepted. A problem that has emerged in a number of countries is the suspicion that results have suffered from grade inflation – i.e. the belief that improved scores are less due to better performance and more due to a tendency to increase the average marks over time. So if results are in large numbers converging on the same high point in the scale it becomes more difficult, it is argued, for universities to determine which student applicants have demonstrated the better aptitude for their chosen course.

Now the University of Cambridge has responded to this apparent phenomenon by talking about reintroducing its entrance exam. Whether this is a good solution to the perceived problem is another matter, not least because the entrance exam is seen by many as favouring students from private schools, who will have the staff and resources to prepare applicants for this exercise.

There is a very good case for re-examining final school examinations in a number of countries, and also for looking again at how the results are used in the university sector to take admissions decisions. Where they are used to determine entry standards they should work reasonably well; where they are used to make individual selections (i.e. to select one student over another) they may often be less useful. But the answer to the problem almost certainly is not for individual universities to introduce entrance examinations.

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So, when it come to university courses, are some professions more equal than others?

March 17, 2015

Irish readers of this blog will be well familiar with the complaint – and it’s an entirely justified complaint – that the so-called ‘points system’ that attaches a value to the final school (Leaving Certificate) examination results has created a completely false ‘market’ in university entry to different courses. If you want to do medicine or law you have to achieve very high points. If you wan to study computing, you need far fewer points. So, the apparent judgement is you need to be much cleverer to be a lawyer than to be a computer programmer. Speaking as a lawyer, I can categorically say that this makes no sense.

But the problem is not unique to Ireland. A senior Scottish academic, Professor Alan Gilloran of Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, has now been reported as saying that ‘that society should reconsider how it views different professions’ and has called for a re-think of established hierarchies in terms of jobs. He has suggested, more specifically, that the high entry requirements for medical studies are not reasonable, because medicine ‘is plumbing, for God’s sake’.

Whether we would agree with this assessment of medicine or not, there is an important point in all of this. We need to ensure that the perceived social status of a particular profession does not – or no longer – govern the academic expectations we have of students. Society’s needs should not be made subject to social aspirations. Right now we need more engineers, biotechnologists, computer programmers, mathematicians; and these are the careers into which we should be enticing the brightest and best of the younger generation.

Getting to the points

August 21, 2012

This post is coming to you from Ireland, where I am currently on a short break. As Irish readers of this blog will know, one of the hottest news stories here right now is the impact on university admissions of the recent decision by Irish universities to award bonus points to secondary students taking and passing higher mathematics in the final school examination, the Leaving Certificate. The movement towards this position was described some time ago in this blog, including this post written almost exactly two years ago.

The background to this whole issue was growing trend for students not to do higher level mathematics at all, thereby making the pool of those eligible to take various science and engineering courses very small; while at the same time the demand for people with these skills was rising significantly. Ireland was thought to be at risk economically if this trend were not corrected.

Well, bonus points were introduced, and the trend was most definitely corrected. As information has become available about the recent Leaving Certificate results, record numbers are now succeeding in mathematics, and demand for science, computing and engineering courses is up very significantly. So is everyone happy? Not a bit. Concerns are now being expressed that the whole points system has been distorted, and that those with no interest in science and engineering are getting mathematics-based bonus points for their applications to do, say, classics or English literature. And so there are called for the whole thing to be reversed again, or at any rate adjusted to award bonus points only to those wanting to do relevant subjects. Even the Irish Times has weighed in with an editorial, and in the meantime the whole issue is also likely to be included in more general proposals made by the universities to reform the points system.

This last point is important. When still President of DCU I strongly backed the proposal to award bonus points for mathematics, for the reasons set out above; but I never thought this was the complete answer. The reality is that this and other issues can only be resolved if the entire Irish points system is overhauled and, preferably in my view, abandoned. It has seriously damaged Irish secondary and higher education. It is time for it to go. But while we are waiting for that, people should not worry so much about the precise impact of bonus points: they are doing what was wanted of them. Most particularly, they have brought students back into the sciences, which was vital for Ireland. Now is not to the time to get ambivalent about that.