Select Committee on Education and Employment Fourth Report


Use of AS level results in admissions

  93. A survey by UCAS has found that 83 per cent of students studying A levels will sit the new AS exams starting in September 2000. Dr John Dunford, General Secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, told the Sub-committee that his Association had been active in trying to persuade universities that schools needed to know how universities would respond to the new AS levels, and how their admissions criteria were going to change for 2002. Dr Dunford felt that universities did not understand the urgency of schools' requests for this information, despite the fact that schools are now advising students on choice of courses for university entry in 2002. Only 20 or so universities had responded to say how they were going to broaden their admissions criteria for 2002 entry.[83] At the time of Dr Dunford's submission many examination boards had not published detailed specifications for AS courses, nor was the extent to which schools intend to certificate or declare AS grades prior to university application clear.

94. Baroness Blackstone told the Sub-committee that on the basis of an initial evaluation the take­up of a broader range of AS and A levels was going to be very considerable.[84] The Minister said that, whenever she addressed the higher education sector, she reminded universities of these changes and asked that Vice-Chancellors to ensure that admissions officers in their universities were fully aware of them. She had no doubt that universities would be responsive to those changes.[85] We recommend that universities should respond fully and with sufficient urgency to the development of new AS qualifications. Any complacency or undue delay would threaten a significant and challenging development in post-16 education. We also recommend that Government should require universities in receipt of public funds to make public their policies on the use of AS examinations in their admissions criteria.

Bias in admissions

  95. Despite an intention to select the best students irrespective of background, the outcomes of admissions processes offer readily available support for those who point to social bias in applications. The Sutton Trust has pointed to the fact that independent schools end up getting a disproportionate share of the places available at the most competitive universities.[86] On the other hand, Dr Philip Evans and Mrs Sue Fairburn, representing the Independent Schools Council, drew our attention to the fact that over 30 per cent of all students who achieve at least three Grade As at Advanced level are educated in independent schools. In certain subjects (the sciences, mathematics, economics and French) such students account for 40-50 per cent of the total A grades awarded.[87] It follows that where there are enough candidates with three A grades to fill all the places available, those selected will include a larger proportion of independent school students than there are in the secondary school population as a whole.

96. Against this, Professor Halsey and Dr McCrum have argued that it is incorrect to assume that bias in entry to Oxford University is entirely due to differences in application rates from independent and state schools. They concluded from statistical analyses of 1994-1997 applications that independent school applicants were "1.2 times more likely to gain entrance to Oxford than equally qualified state school applicants".[88] According to the University of Oxford, over the past four years the success rates for the two sectors have been tending to move closer together and early indications are that for entry in 2001, their success rates of application have equalised to a ratio of 1.[89]

97. HEFCE has noted that for any given total of A­level points, students from comprehensive schools obtain higher classes of degree than those from independent schools.[90] Incidental to their study of gender differences in student attainment, Robert McNabb, Sarmistha Pal and Peter Sloane found that among 60,000 students who graduated (excluding medicine and dentistry) from the old universities in 1992 those from maintained schools were a fifth more likely to have been awarded a first class honours degree.[91] Professor Halsey and Dr McCrum argued that an A level score of 30 points (three Grade As) from a state school was prima facie superior to the same score by an independent school pupil, and that students from the relatively under-resourced state school sector would perform better at university than privately-educated students with the same scores.[92]

98. Statistics given to us by the University of Oxford relating to those graduating in 1999 showed that there was no significant difference in degree performance between independent sector educated students and those educated in the state sector who had been admitted to the university 3 or 4 years earlier.[93] UCAS data show that for the University of Oxford the average point score of University of Oxford entrants is the same across independent, comprehensive and grammar school entrants.[94] This suggests that differential performance of independent school entrants compared to comprehensive school entrants is not a factor in the case of the University of Oxford now. This information should be published annually by every institution to help identify and then address any such problems.

99. Across the higher education system as a whole there is evidence that some account is being taken of relative disadvantage in admissions decisions. In an analysis of the 1995 UCAS applications and admissions statistics, Dr Pamela Robinson and Mr Paul White found that social classes IV and V comprised ten per cent of those accepted on degree courses even though they constituted only 8.4 per cent of applicants and even though their mean A level scores were significantly below those of social classes I and II-16.8 and 16.0 against 20.1 and 18.6.[95]

100. If there is firm evidence that post-16 qualifications are not a fair reflection of the relative performance of students in higher education across different school types, consideration would need to be given to providing improved national performance indicators to better assess the ability and potential of all students to benefit from higher education. We recommend that HEFCE, UCAS and others should commission research into the relative performance in higher education of equally qualified students educated in both independent and state funded schools.

101. Mr Peter Lampl of the Sutton Trust drew the attention of the Sub-committee to the gap that appeared to exist in the performance of several of the most research-intensive universities between their actual intake of students from the under-represented groups and their HEFCE benchmarks for widening social diversity.[96] The Sutton Trust concluded in its report Entry to leading universities that the imbalance was due to two main factors: a low proportion of suitably qualified less affluent candidates and inadequacies in the admissions system. The report recommended:

  • A level results should be made available before university admissions decisions are made,
  • the introduction of some form of aptitude tests,
  • the use of university recruitment staff to 'talent spot' students,
  • each university should devise an action plan to make measurable progress,
  • benchmarks for access should be published by HEFCE.[97]

Although we have some reservations about the Sutton Trust's recommendation for introduction of aptitude tests as a key element in widening access (though as part of a mix for so doing they might well have merit), we do believe the Trust makes a compelling case for a powerful and pro-active package of measures to be introduced by universities and HEFCE so as to widen access.

Unstated criteria

  102. A number of witnesses told the Sub-committee of the need to reduce what was called the 'mystique' of university admissions. Mr Neil Hopkins, Principal of Peter Symonds Sixth Form College, said that his college, unlike many others, employed an Oxbridge entrance co­ordinator, as it had sufficient critical mass of students making applications to Oxford and Cambridge to dedicate a member of staff to that task.[98]

103. Dr John Brennan of the Association of Colleges said that schools and colleges were sometimes frustrated by "unstated criteria" in relation to selection for individual departments and individual courses. He argued that a greater clarity was required about the way in which universities do their selection.[99] He told the Sub-committee that it "has long been perceived [by schools and colleges] that certain universities ... would probably not look too strongly at a candidate who had already put an Oxford or Cambridge college down as their first choice".[100] This is a persistent and pervasive belief, although we were also told that it had no current basis.[101] It seems that prospective applicants, and their advisers in schools and colleges, still have concerns about listing the universities to which applications have been made, despite such lists having for some years been alphabetical rather than stating an order of preference. The UCAS proposals for 'blind' applications to higher education from 2003 will end this problem and are a welcome development.

104. Baroness Blackstone told the Sub-committee that the admissions system needed to be transparent, and that every university needed to set out clearly, department by department, the qualifications and qualities they look for when recruiting students.[102] The Minister argued that more contact and discussion between school and university sectors was necessary, especially in areas that traditionally have sent a small proportion of students into higher education.[103]

105. Interviews give universities an opportunity to assess applicants' suitability for their chosen course of study by more than reference to their academic record. Whilst there are potential advantages in the greater flexibility afforded by an admissions process that includes interviews and does not rely exclusively on actual and predicted exam performance, there are also perceived problems. Professor Halsey and Dr McCrum argued that the abolition of the interview in the Oxford admissions process would be welcome as it is an "obstacle to which state school pupils are known to be vulnerable by contrast with elaborately prepared sixth-formers from the top public schools".[104] Mr Edwin Peel, Admissions Tutor at Keble College, Oxford, accepted the view that some students from some schools had been coached and specially prepared prior to coming for the interview at Oxford University.[105] Mr Peel told the Sub-committee "we obviously do whatever is possible, within the time frame allowed, to put candidates at their ease ...we have to try, as best we can, to see through gloss, as you put it, or polish, and detect real ability, which is what we are interested in".[106]

106. The role of the interview in university admissions and how reliable it is as a predictor of performance at university are issues that would merit closer examination than has been possible at this stage of the inquiry. What is clear is that where interviews are used in admissions, they must be conducted fairly and professionally by suitably­trained staff. During its visit to the USA, the Education Sub-committee was told that universities generally did not find interviews to be a valuable or practical means of selection. A senior admissions officer at one of the American universities visited by the Education Sub-committee commented that the university would use interviews if it wanted to find more students 'like us'. The admissions system for higher education will command greater public confidence if it is seen to be fair and transparent. We recognise the concerns addressed to the Sub-committee by representatives of the schools sector that in some respects the current admissions system could be improved. To this end we recommend that, in the interests of ensuring that the interview process is as transparent and as fair as possible, universities themselves should establish the broad principles governing the conduct of admissions interviews and these should be made known to all interested parties. We recommend that a working group should be established jointly by representatives of the school and university sector to promote more open dialogue about the applications process. We recommend that university admissions interviews should be conducted only by properly trained staff, who need not necessarily be exclusively teaching staff.

College-based admissions

  107. The University of Oxford's representatives told the Sub-committee that the importance of the tutorial system at Oxford was reflected in its admissions process. Candidates applied to individual colleges of the University which offer teaching in their chosen subject. The colleges, rather than the University, conducted the admissions process. Academic staff, who act as tutors to those students admitted to the college, conducted the interviews for those applicants.[107] Around 80 per cent of students admitted were offered places in their first choice colleges with the remaining proportion being accepted by other Oxford colleges.[108] Professor Halsey and Dr McCrum argued that "at present the Admissions Office publishes global acceptance rates. This is not of much use as a guide to remedial action".[109] Dr Colin Lucas, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, responded to the Education Sub-committee's request to publish application and admission data for each college.[110] The University of Cambridge, which similarly admits students by individual colleges, has made similar data available.[111] We welcome the publication by Oxford and Cambridge of admissions data on a college-by-college basis. We recommend that such data should also be published in future years to achieve the transparency which should characterize the admissions systems of all universities. All those involved in college admissions should be properly trained to conduct interviews.

108. We do not see the necessity to give special treatment to England's two oldest universities within a national university admissions system. The special status enjoyed by Oxbridge might also act as a deterrent to applications. It is therefore unhelpful for UCAS to set Oxbridge apart by setting a separate and earlier date each year for applications to those universities, which only reinforces the out-dated idea that Oxford and Cambridge are set apart from the rest of the higher education sector. We recommend that UCAS should apply the same closing date to applications for all universities, including all medical and veterinary schools. This reform should be introduced at the earliest possible date.

109. We believe that the present college-based admissions system might be a significant barrier to the timely response to criticisms of the low proportion of suitably qualified students from lower socio-economic backgrounds admitted to many colleges. The college-based system of admission to Oxbridge should not be used as an excuse for inaction. We recommend that for Oxford and Cambridge HEFCE's performance indicators, at least for those relating to the socio-economic backgrounds of candidates who apply and are admitted, should be dis-aggregated to college level so that the performance of each college in widening access can be assessed.

The collegiate system and action to widen access

  110. It has been argued that the collegiate system could be a barrier to the timely implementation of necessary reforms to the admissions process. However, Ms Minto, Secretary of the Oxford Colleges Admissions Office, told us "the colleges on admissions have something called a 'disarmament agreement', so that if we take a decision—for instance, we took a decision five years ago to abolish formal entrance examination—if a majority of colleges support that decision, all the colleges go along with it. It is absolutely collective".[112] The recent HEFCE funding given to improve access "is being spent and being used in a very co-ordinated way... all my colleges are involved".[113] The Vice-Chancellor (Dr Lucas) also assured us: "I have not had any resistance from the colleges to the proposals we put out on the Access Working Party".[114]

111. Access initiatives date back from the West Riding School (1964), the Don Visits to LEAs (1967), the Hertford Scheme (1965), the introduction of conditional offers (1974) and early offers (1971), the ILEA Science Scheme (1978), the ILEA PPE Scheme (1979) and the Scottish Scheme (1977). There are currently numerous college and university based schemes taking place. This suggests that the collegiate system allows different approaches to be tried and best practice adopted more widely.

83  Q. 870. Back

84  Q. 1110. Back

85  Q. 1110. Back

86  The Sutton Trust, Entry to leading universities, April 2000. Back

87  Ev. p. 122. Back

88  Oxford Magazine No. 158, 1998, page 3. Back

89  Appendix 13. Back

90  Ev. p. 87, para 9. Back

91  University of Aberdeen Department of Economics, Gender Differences in Student Attainment: The Case of the University Students in the UK. Discussion Paper 98­10, 1998. Back

92  Oxford Magazine No. 158, 1998, page 3. Back

93  Q. 730. Back

94  Appendix 13. Back

95  University of Liverpool Centre for Education and Employment Research, Participation in Post­Compulsory Education, 1997. Socio-economic classification for the UK from the 1998 General Household Survey: Professional 5 per cent; Employers & managers 16 per cent; Intermediate 35 per cent; Skilled manual 18 per cent; Semi skilled manual 18 per cent; and Unskilled 6 per cent.  Back

96  Q. 306. Back

97  The Sutton Trust, Entry to leading universities, April 2000. Back

98  Q. 853. Back

99  Q. 851. Back

100  Q. 851. Back

101  Sir Kenneth Calman, Vice­Chancellor of Durham University, told the Sub­committee that there was no evidence for these concerns, Q.1083. See also Appendix 7. Back

102  Q. 1106. Back

103  Q. 1119. Back

104  Oxford Magazine, No. 152, 1998, page 3. Back

105  Q. 729. Back

106  Q. 729. Back

107  About 800 people are involved in making access admissions decisions at Oxford. About 450 of them have received training so far and the need for all to be trained is fully recognised (Q. 728). Back

108  Ev. p. 152, para 5. Back

109  Oxford Magazine, No 158, 1998. Back

110  Appendix 1. Back

111  Appendix 2. Back

112  Q. 739. Back

113  Q. 740. Back

114  Q. 739. Back

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