Archive for March 23, 2013

Why participation isn’t widening

Posted in Education with tags , on March 23, 2013 by telescoper

Frustrated at my ongoing indisposition – I had to miss today’s Admissions Day at Sussex University, which has put me in a very bad mood – I’ve decided to deliver a short rant about widening participation. WP is the name given to schemes to open up access to higher education to students from less advantaged backgrounds. An excellent idea, of course.

The problem is that, despite pressure from the relevant quango (OFFA) most self-styled leading universities, especially those in the Russell Group, have consistently failed to widen participation to any significant extent. Why is this?

The easy answer is that universities have to take students who are adequately prepared for undergraduate studies, which means selecting on the basis of A-level grades, which means students from private schools have an advantage.

The problem with this argument is that, at least in Physics and Mathematics, I don’t think A-levels are a reliable indicator of aptitude for undergraduate study at all. If I had my way we wouldn’t use A-levels at all.

Unfortunately we’re stuck with the current, unfair, system because any “leading” university that takes a large number of students with weak A-levels (possibly through a Foundation Programme) will be penalised in the league tables for not being selective enough. Moreover, the Government’s decision to lift the cap on places for students with AAB or better, means that recruiting students with top A-level grades is potentially the most lucrative strategy.

That the system doesn’t work the way it is supposed to is obvious. If you don’t agree, then ask yourself why it’s not the case that virtually all Oxbridge students get first class degrees, when they admit only A*/A students?

Things won’t improve until we abandon the obsession with A-level tariff points and find a way of assessing intrinsic ability.