Time to stop gambling on advantaged university applicants?

Coinciding with the publication of this summer’s exam results was a familiar spate of media pieces warning universities not to “patronise poor kids” by lowering offers to those who don’t get the grades.

As usual, such students are constructed as a “gamble”, universities as well-meaning but naïve institutions, and OFFA as meddling social engineers. The “real” problem always lies elsewhere.

But is it really an academic “gamble” to acknowledge that not all young people have the same schooling advantages?

No, says most of the evidence. Primarily because such students actually outperform those from the private sector once at university. In fact, to recruit on grades alone would be a far greater gamble – that’s why most universities now consider contextual data when choosing between similarly qualified candidates.

In this week’s TES, Tom Bennett argues that such approaches simply move the injustice elsewhere, “from lack of opportunity for some from birth, to lack of opportunity for some at the point of university admission”.

This is a quite a claim: that advantaged students, often brimming with social capital and coached to game the HE admissions system, could face a “lack of opportunity” at the Russell Group gates.

I’m not sure we need worry about that just yet.

Indeed, using a Freedom of Information request, The Guardian last week showed that private school applicants were 9% more likely to be admitted to Oxford than those from state schools with same grades. Long-term academic studies of UCAS data reach similar conclusions.

Put simply, applicants from the state sector must earn higher grades than their private school counterparts to have the same chance of entry.

This is generally lost on the authors of topical opinion pieces, where the approach tends towards “I know of one student…” anecdotes.

For Bennett, “universities are not places in which to unpick the stitches of historical injustice”.

But if those stitches need unpicking, where better to start?

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6 thoughts on “Time to stop gambling on advantaged university applicants?

  1. I tend to agree with your argument but when you say “Put simply, applicants from the state sector must earn higher grades than their private school counterparts to have the same chance of entry.” that’s maybe putting it too simply. Do you not think the differences in the subjects taken have any effect? I wouldn’t say they explain everything – interviews play a big part – but it’s not as straightforward as just discriminating on grades.

    • Yes, you’re right to say that subject choice is a factor in admissions success.

      One point I would make is that when Vikki Boliver’s 2013 study controlled for applicants’ A-levels in ‘facilitating subjects’, it had very little effect on the relative odds of their being made an offer by a Russell Group university. State school applicants were still disfavoured relative to private school applicants.

      Of course, it could be the case that those A-levels were in the ‘wrong’ facilitating subjects for the degree applied for!

      Predicted grades are the other key variable in the equation. It’s not easy to get a clear sense of how they differ between school types or how they’re used by universities in the admissions process, but they could also help account for outcome differentials.

  2. Pingback: It’s not easy to raise prior attainment, but universities could better contextualise applicants’ grades | British Politics and Policy at LSE

  3. Pingback: It’s not easy to raise prior attainment, but universities could better contextualise applicants’ grades | A Higher Education Blog

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