Selection of students for universities – a topic of great interest – are we just allowing those who would always have gone to find a way in, or are we offering widening access:
There are many disturbing aspects of current policies towards higher education, but one of the most disturbing has attracted relatively little comment compared with funding reforms, student financial support or access to visas for overseas students. It is the growing obsession with the stratification of universities by the A-level grades their students attain.
The new conventional wisdom is that students with high A-level grades should all be corralled into so-called “top” universities, ie, those that are research intensive. These universities are deemed to be successful by being not just selective, but super-selective in their student recruitment. Now, every newspaper league table of universities heavily weights the input measure of students’ entry qualifications, encouraging universities to be ever more focused on candidates with three As or better. This fixation has a number of unfortunate consequences.
Of these, by far the most important is that the intake of universities becomes less and less diverse. Very high A-level scores can be and indeed are achieved by some young people from all social and ethnic groups. However, there is a large preponderance of private school-educated, upper-middle-class students with these scores, which reflects the advantages of their schooling and their family backgrounds. One indicator is the tiny number of British black and Asian students at Oxbridge and the concentration of such students in post-1992 inner-city universities. Another sign is the under-representation of mature students in some universities and their concentration in others, partly because they have taken fewer A levels than 18-year-old candidates, or in many cases none at all.
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