(This is Part I of III; for the ‘parent’ page, click here)
The most common way to access university is to get a suitable qualification at the end of upper secondary school. The government, or in many countries the universities themselves, then decide what the appropriate entrance requirement is for a course of study. This may be the university’s own exams, or nationally standard subjects and grades. If there are specific requirements for a degree, this is usually because it is very popular and/or is considered too difficult for people who don’t get those grades. In some cases/countries it is simply enough to have the right qualification and the grade may not matter. Where this is the case, the people who can’t cope (or just don’t like it) tend to drop out early on, changing to another subject or quitting university altogether.
Over time, it should be relatively straightforward to work out general guidelines for entry. This, of course, assumes that the school qualifications or tests don’t change over time (this is another entire topic, but let’s assume that the standard is constant). You should be able to see how people with particular grades or qualifications perform over their degrees and then set the bar accordingly. The more popular/difficult the degree, the higher you can set your entrance requirement. Simples! There is, though, a fair amount of evidence showing that the people with the best grades at school don’t necessarily get the best grades at university. This is a complicated issue, but it may be that some applicants are less able than those with similar or lower grades. Why is this?
There is extensive research indicating that certain groups of people systematically do better or worse than others at school, and not because of differences in ability. Some groups tend to have a very high chance of being successful, while others live in circumstances that impede their chances of doing as well as they could. This can be down a range of things, such as differences in the schools themselves (e.g. material resources, quality of teaching staff), parents and peers (family finances, levels of education, attitudes towards learning), and neighbourhoods (deprivation, distance from schools or universities, attitudes towards education). Overall, people from poorer backgrounds do worse than those who are more affluent. This is not because they aren’t as bright, but because there are greater obstacles to them getting through school successfully. You always have to be careful when you generalise; there are plenty of children from more well-off families who don’t do well, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds who do brilliantly. However, the data shows quite clearly that the playing field is very uneven when it comes to performance at school. So how do you identify who the ‘right’ students are?
One way to approach this is to ignore the social issues entirely and set your entrance standards as high as you can. This may be more critical at elite universities, who want to attract the brightest students and whose status is partly dictated by how difficult they are to get into. In Japan, for example, one university ranking is based entirely on this criteria – the more difficult you are to access, the ‘better’ you are. But unless bright people from all backgrounds have a decent chance of getting those grades, this would make elite universities socially selective…
Another possible solution is to supplement applications with further information alongside grades, such as a CV or a statement that explains why you are applying to that course. Personal statements are part of university applications in the UK, but systematic ways of writing these personal statements tend to emerge. A quick search under ‘UCAS personal statement’ returns a long list of how-to guides, and there is no guarantee that the statements are true. One study found large numbers of applicants using the same story of setting fire to the cat as the moment when they realised they wanted to study chemistry. Either there is a bit of fibbing going on, or pet immolation is rife! There is also a second issue in that schools that send lot of people to university may be better at helping their pupils write effective statements.
It could be a good idea to invite potential applicants to an interview in order to assess their suitability. You still have to find a fair way to winnow the numbers down to a practical number, and interviews can be standard practice in subjects such as healthcare and teaching which require certain interpersonal skills. A problem might be that some students, particularly those from further away and/or poorer backgrounds, may not be able to travel to an interview. Another – now familiar – issue comes up here, too, in that some will be much better prepared. Those whose parents or social contacts work in a certain field or attended a particular university can offer advice and even mock interviews, as can schools that have more experience with this. This is connected to wealth or class, in that those with the least access to help can be those further down the financial/social pecking order.
One emerging but contentious solution is to implement ‘contextual admissions’; this is sometimes called ‘positive discrimination’. There is an endless range of different models you can apply, and this is a difficult thing to get right. It might be possible to include factors on personal background, such as parental educational or financial status, the neighbourhood they live in, or the school the attend. For example, if someone has grades that are well above average for their school, they came from a disadvantaged area and had parents who are unskilled workers, it may be that they are showing the potential to do very well. But can you equally turn down those from private schools with good grades? Establishing a model that is fair is always going to be a somewhat inexact science, and there is always a danger of people ‘gaming’ the system. Those ’in the know’ (usually educated, middle-class parents) could send their children to ‘weaker’ schools, move to certain areas, or otherwise fudge their background information. Unless you individualise the application process, this risk is there, and there are too many people going to university for this to be a reasonable prospect.
Part II: Who wants to study? And who doesn’t? (Coming Soon)