by Sophie Watson
Friday, 15
January 2021
Reaction
11:49

Don’t let elite universities drop their entry requirements

As a disadvantaged student, I wanted to prove I could get the top grades
by Sophie Watson
Cambridge University. Credit: Graeme Robertson/Getty Images

“Elite universities told to lower entry grades,” ran a headline in The Times yesterday. It referred to a report just released by researchers at the University of Durham — a report that contains eight recommendations with the aim of making university admissions fairer.

Fairness in university admissions is a pressing issue — data published the year that I matriculated shows that Cambridge admits more students from the most privileged 20% of postcodes than from the bottom 80% combined, and the picture at other top universities is little better.

The old meritocratic ideal of ‘equality of opportunity,’ the Durham report says, is a myth. Instead, they favour ‘equity of opportunity’ — presented in this context as the idea that prospective students’ grades should be “judged in light of the socioeconomic circumstances in which they were obtained.” According to their own research, between two-thirds and three-quarters of selectors at old universities already use this kind of contextual data to inform their admissions decisions — but the report goes one further.

They suggest that prestigious universities should drop their entry requirements by several grades when considering the applications of disadvantaged students, simply as a matter of course.

When I applied to Cambridge, I was living in supported housing for young people at risk of homelessness. I had two GCSEs, a failed psychology A level, a year’s experience of working a minimum-wage job, and very little else to recommend me — aside from the encouraging reports of my teachers, and a near-religious mania about university. I went to my interview in a charity shop jumper and with holes in my shoes. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, regardless of my circumstances —  when I succeeded, the impact on my self-worth was huge.

I am not saying the disadvantaged should do a Norman Tebbit. That’s not what I did at all. I was surrounded by support: I never would have made the grade without it. I lived in a supported housing project; I was on income and housing benefits; my sixth form college granted me a fortnightly bursary. Cambridge asks applicants to fill in a ‘special circumstances’ form, which gave me a chance to explain my circumstances directly. These things went some way towards establishing the equality of opportunity that the authors of the Durham report so easily dismiss.

This is one reason to reject the equity approach advocated in the Durham report. Equity — an increasingly fashionable concept  — removes the agency of potential applicants, turning them into a collection of disadvantaged traits to be accounted for rather than individuals struggling through difficult circumstances. It’s a massive cop-out — reducing entry requirements for disadvantaged students manipulates the outcome of a broken system without ever addressing its root causes.

The recent foundation year scheme announced by Cambridge does not seem to fall into this equity trap. Its entry requirements are lower than those of undergraduate degrees, but the foundation year represents an opportunity for disadvantaged students to prove themselves, just like the chance I once wanted.

Schemes like this are powerful — yet for all but the 50 students a year accepted on to the course, what changes? If the authors of the Durham report are correct that equality of opportunity in Britain is a myth then perhaps it’s time to turn away from the patronising and superficial solutions that equity theory suggests. It’s the root causes that need to be attended to.

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Nick Whitehouse
Nick Whitehouse
1 year ago

Perhaps we could bring back grammar schools, didn’t they offer a way for clever children to pursue an academic career?

Dominic Rudman
Dominic Rudman
1 year ago

I grew up in very poor circumstances-I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunities that grammar school gave me and I’m certain that my life would have turned out very differently-for the worse-without it.

Kiran Grimm
Kiran Grimm
1 year ago

From the egalitarian’s point of view individual cleverness is a problem. Other children who are not so clever will be left feeling unhappy by the clever child’s success.

I have actually heard a soppy socialist primary school teacher express that view.

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
1 year ago
Reply to  Kiran Grimm

As ‘Property Is Theft’ (as socialists said in the 1960s) so excess IQ is ‘Intellectual Theft’.

Kiran Grimm
Kiran Grimm
1 year ago
Reply to  7882 fremic

Do you really think that socialists waited until the 1960s to say that? Unlikely. Look it up!

You could start with Gustav Landauer an early German socialist and, interestingly, an anti-Marxist.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago

The corollary to this is that anyone paying for a professional service should be required to disclose to potential clients their professional qualifications right back to their GCSEs and A Levels.

Before being treated by a doctor, or taking pensions advice from a lawyer, or flying on a commercial airliner, I would want to know what their A Level grades were. This would tell me whether they got this work because they know their stuff, or because some lefty don felt sorry for them because they were black, a lesbian or ginger-haired.

If the latter, I’ll find someone else. No offence, but I am not putting my health or fortune in the hands of quota doctors, airline pilots, lawyers or anyone else. Unlike the educational establishment I regard the best education money can buy as worth having.

Kathryn Richards
Kathryn Richards
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

I would never get pensions advice from a lawyer anyway – they aren’t trained Financial advisers. 😉
But otherwise, spot on.

Geoff Cooper
Geoff Cooper
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Agreed but why drag in gingers like me? Nothing wrong with my grades!

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago
Reply to  Geoff Cooper

Sooner or later someone will decide you’re oppressed, and will discriminate in your favour in order to end discrimination.

Judy Simpson
Judy Simpson
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Although I agree with the premise of your argument – no one should be chosen for any position in order to fill a quota system – I’m not sure school results should be used as a test for professional expertise. I know plenty of people who did not do well in school but after a change in attitude and application, have gone on to have successful careers in all three of the professions you indicated – my husband included.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago
Reply to  Judy Simpson

You’d have to take a holistic view, Judy. While there are people like that, probably they didn’t go straight from A Levels to Oxbridge or they obtained their relevant degree later than usual – seven years after A Levels rather than three, for example. Or they have more than three A Levels in separate batches, because they rethought and retook. There will be something in there to suggest they were a late developer.

If your prospective lawyer has four GCSEs and got DDE in her A Levels (which include subjects ending in “…Studies”), yet graduated from Oxford four years later, I’ll be looking for another lawyer. That timetable denotes someone who did not get in off their academic qualifications, but who was instead waved through for hailing from the right race or postcode.

Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
1 year ago

This kind of scheme is also very unfair to the candidates it’s meant to help. The problems that mean candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t have the same qualifications aren’t, mainly, about the boxes being ticked. It’s about whether they have the skills to to well.

If they don’t have the skills, they are going to struggle, and if they come out the other side without dropping out it will tend to be towards the bottom. Everyone will know it, and they will know it – it will affect how people see graduates from such backgrounds. It’s also possible that had these candidates gone to less competitive universities they might have thrived and been able to take advantage of opportunities there. All this has been shown in relation to similar schemes at Harvard.

The problem is that really increasing the economic diversity of graduates in these institutions would mean solving problems that begin far before the students apply to university, and these things are not under the influence of the university. They require the action of government, communities, and individuals, and are complex and often intractable problems. Proposals like this are intended only to make the statistics look more favourable in as easy and immediate a way as possible.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago

There is also an arrogant assumption embedded here that university admissions officials can somehow discern ex ante that a candidate with BBB from a state school would have got A*A*A* had she attended a private school, and vice versa.

I’d love to know if they’ve ever tested that. It would be easy – you just compare final degree class results to A Levels and see if there’s a correlation. If, generally, students with BBB get Seconds, those with AAA get Firsts, but those with BBB from a state school also get Firsts, the case is made. If not, and the correlation is with A-Level performance regardless of school, then clearly there is no basis for assuming equivalence between BBB at one type of school and A*A*A* from another. Swap their schools and the results would have been similar.

Another assumption is that pupils from the state sector haven’t been privately tutored. Yet another is that pupils at private schools all have rich parents who can afford the fees, and that those at state schools don’t. If you want an accurate proxy for parental wealth, rather than the school the kids are at, why not look at the car they drive?

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Some years ago Cambridge’s director of admissions said that the best predictor of degree class was A Level results. People who got BBB from a state school did not get a better class of degree than those who got BBB from a grammar or selective private school. Since this statistic undermines the case for introducing racial
discrimination or social engineering into the admissions process it’s not one they like to publicise much.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 year ago

The irony is that the same people who champion lessened standards in the name of equality or equity cannot grasp their own bigotry. What else are they saying in wanting to lower the bar?

Geoff Cooper
Geoff Cooper
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

True. And the terrible danger is that people will be given places on courses that they are unable to handle intellectually. Out of their depth even with lots of extra help, they flounder and end up dropping out in year 2 having blown perhaps their one chance at higher education by aiming unrealistically high and left resentful and in debt.

Sophie Watson
Sophie Watson
1 year ago
Reply to  Geoff Cooper

That’s why I rather like foundation year schemes as a solution, but they still address the symptoms rather than the cause.

Geoff Cooper
Geoff Cooper
1 year ago
Reply to  Sophie Watson

When I went to university a lot of the young people from state schools really struggled at first because they had never really been taught to write proper essays, and academic work is all based on the formal essay (or was then). People like me who had been through private education had been writing essays since we were eight.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 year ago
Reply to  Geoff Cooper

that was the argument made some years back in California about watered down standards for the UC system. A lot of minority students were admitted and most of them failed because the gap between their public schools and a top tier university was too big. Those same students would have likely fared much better at a smaller school, but the people who look at these students as pets and mascots have no interest in outcomes.

Dominic Rudman
Dominic Rudman
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

That’s happening all over the US these days with affirmative action. Ironically, there is a group action for racism being brought against one of the woke universities by Asian parents as, despite having higher average GPAs than whites, Hispanics and blacks, affirmative action effectively places a cap on the numbers of Asians a university can accept in favour of less well qualified candidates.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

It’s not racism if the victims are white or the racist is black.

What is and is not racism often depends on the race of the racist.

J StJohn
J StJohn
1 year ago

As an employer, ceteris paribus, I’m likely to favour graduates from humble backgrounds because, for them to get to the top in academia they must be really, really good; if , however, they succeeded BECAUSE the odds were skewed in their favour, I’m simply not going to waste my time interviewing them in the first place.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago
Reply to  J StJohn

All the evidence suggests that their background made no difference.

Christine Thomas
Christine Thomas
1 year ago

Please can the UK rid itself of the promoting of ‘elite’ universities, especially Oxbridge. These in particular owe their ‘eliteness’ less to academic excellence than self-promoting, self sustaining of those with ‘elite’access to all of life’s ‘goodies’, creating a clique such as the Bullingdon Club able to infect the top strata of every institution. Not one of them seems to have had practical experience of public or even private administtation their chief talent promoting opinions which are no more or less reliable than anybodyelse’s. How for example ‘democratic’ and/or ‘representative’ is our parliamentary system when one generation of one nuclear family have 3MPs and a fourth thinking it might be a nice idea to join them at the ast election. And only God knows what all the other famy connections are hidden behind various surnames? In all other lotteries, family
members are barred from benefiting.

Katy Randle
Katy Randle
1 year ago

The problems of that particular class being over-represented are real, but very little to do with the elite universities, which DO promote academic excellence. I was lucky enough to study at the college pictured above, and one of the best experiences of my life was meeting others who were similarly intellectually curious, and interacting with them.

opn
opn
1 year ago

I agree. Labour dynasties, like the Benns the Callaghans and the Kinnocks are a disgrace. The old hereditary House of Lords dealt with the problem neatly, by recognising that family connections are bound to be a real force and effectively neutering their effectiveness by kicking the likes of the 2nd Baron Stansgate into a higher sphere of usefulness

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago
Reply to  opn

Now that’s very unfair. The Honourable Emily Sophia Wedgwood Benn was selected as a parliamentary candidate aged 17 on her track record of solid achievement, and a lifetime’s hard work in the community. This was not in any way down to her being a scion of the “Tony Benn” brand. She went to two elite selective schools and Oxford on merit, not because four generations of her family are Labour royalty, or because she has two XX chromosomes, or is a quarter Indian. Not at all.