by Sophie Watson
Friday, 15
January 2021

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.

Join the discussion

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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