Who decides?

Students should be treated as individuals in the selection process for a place at university
By Paul Gibbs, Education correspondent

THE closing date for UCAS applications is still some time off (January 15, 2005), but many students in Cyprus are currently considering how they will appeal to the admissions tutors who will review their applications, read their personal statements and accept or reject them within the university (or universities) to which they apply. The system does have flaws but the intention seems fine – the academic admissions tutor has to decide if he can see good reason why this student would benefit from a place on their course, given the evidence before them. The UK system is thus dependent on the judgement of the academic and the credibility of UK qualifications.

It is a system that is risky both for applicants and institutions, since decisions are made before A level results are out, so are based on the student’s predicted, rather than actual, higher level achievement. Tutors do consider previous examination success – for Oxford all you need is a minimum of 10 straight As in your IGCSEs and you may be considered for a place, provided you can then get three A grade A levels. However, this is not the only system and alternatives exist in Europe, the USA and Australia.

These generally boil down to sitting a specific test, whether it be university entry or the American SATs. On the basis of these actual results you are either allocated, or can apply for, a place at university. This distinction is important. In Greece, for instance, your score, for the most part, determines where and what you study. In the USA they provide you with acceptable evidence with which to shop around. All systems require evidence of achievement and try to relate academic merit to the needs of the university and, in the a case of state-allocated places, to link human resource planning to the production of qualified graduate students.

It seems to me that the UK system, on the surface at least, is more relevant to the needs of the student and of the autonomous institution than the demand economy nature of the Greek and other similar systems. This position works insofar as the academics have a say in recruitment, can override guidance levels of qualifications and can use their judgement to offer places to students who they consider deserve a chance. The other side of the coin is that these same academics can also reject students whose academic record is adequate but who do not, in the academic’s judgement, warrant a place on the course. Although this is a very powerful position for the academic, the flexibility of the system has always worked well where applicants are interviewed – as they still are at Oxford and Cambridge (although applications saw a small fall of one per cent on last year) – but has lost many of its merits as numbers have increased dramatically and economic pressure to fill places is immense.

The strains and discontent among lecturers has surfaced in complaints that universities were admitting students who were not capable of benefiting from higher education. A recent survey for the Times Higher Education Supplement of almost 400 academics found that five out of six agreed that “the squeeze on the resources of higher education institutions is having a general adverse effect on academic standards”. Seventy one per cent also agreed that their “institution has admitted students who are not capable of benefiting from higher level study”.

Almost half reported that they had “felt obliged to pass a student whose performance did not really merit a pass”. A worrying 42 per cent said that “decisions to fail students’ work have been overruled at higher levels in the institution” – compared to 38 per cent who disagreed with the statement.

In response to the fact that this was perceived as a funding issue by the respondents, a spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said, “Funding is already increasing under this government by £2bn over the next three years,” and “it is not in an institution’s interests to recruit students who are not capable of completing the course”. So why is this apparently happening?

In my view, the problem is not with the entry gatekeepers but with what they are required to guard! The pretext of a higher education system based on academic rigour and developing the whole person went out with the market economy of Margaret Thatcher. The UK mass higher education system exists to get people jobs and in the process – almost in passing – graduates might become educated. The model is instrumental and is rapidly becoming similar to the USA’s system of elite universities which charge high fees and business colleges which get you through your nursing , business or accounting programme.

Under these circumstances, the UK system of requiring a personal history written on one side of A4 (supported by a biased referee) really offers little to the deliberations of the admissions tutor. In addition, you can apply to up to six universities through UCAS, so each admissions tutor is flooded with applications, many from students who will never end up at that university. The constraints of time and numbers can turn admissions staff into nothing better than demand managers who might be better off if they had trained as loading managers for an airline than as serious academics.

I do not believe the solution is to turn to universal entry examinations, but to take time for proper understanding. That is, for students to understand what they really want – to research and identify the appropriate course and college – and apply to each in turn, not en masse. The institution should understand its own needs and should try to match these with the needs of students.

In marketing terms, the age of the homogeneous customer is long gone. People now want to be treated as individuals and generally are, whether they are buying a car or washing machine. Isn’t it even more important that students should be treated individually – not externally allocated to places based on one entry examination which takes no account of any other factors? Nor should they go through the pretext of evaluation as in the UK system. Opportunities should be opened up through dialogue. Sure, it would initially put a strain on the system, but the system is there for the benefit of society itself.

Furthermore, students would need a clear idea of why they want to go to a specific institution – fulfilling the ambitions of their teacher, parents or anyone else would not be sufficient. In doing this they would take responsibility for their life choices (and no, 18 is not too young – what age do we allow them to take up arms on our behalf?).

So well done Anthony McClaran, UCAS Chief Executive, who is committed to transforming the application process to a fully online system, which should enable better dialogue between universities and their potential students. Reports that students and their advisers are equally enthusiastic at this early stage in the cycle is very promising. But please remember – it’s not about making thing easy, but getting them right!

n Dr Paul Gibbs is Research Dean at Intercollege