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Edinburgh's search for a fairer test of ability

There is no justification for accusations of dumbing down admissions procedures, says Gordon Kirk

THE case for widening participation in higher education is widely recognised: on educational, moral and social grounds, universities need to extend opportunities for higher education throughout the whole community.

Edinburgh University has over the years developed a number of initiatives which, while successful in their own right, have not been sufficient to solve the problem of how to create equality of opportunity in our admissions practices.

It is apparent that the university sector in the UK is failing to provide greater access to those from the more disadvantaged sectors of society.

Despite the huge increase in the numbers attending university, the proportion of those coming from less well-off sections in society has hardly changed in more than 40 years and some excellent students with academic potential are being missed. In our view, that state of affairs is not acceptable.

Edinburgh has decided to introduce, for the majority of programmes, a normal minimum entrance threshold of BBBB at Higher or BBB at A-level. That threshold is an academically demanding one, achieved by fewer then 5 per cent of the age cohort. It is also in line with admissions practices in comparable institutions, and for many programmes will involve little or no change.

The new threshold will not apply to medicine and veterinary medicine, which will negotiate additional ring-fenced places for those who come from groups which are under-represented in higher education. In the university's other colleges, the threshold may not apply in all subject areas: it will depend on the number of well qualified applicants. For example, if the threshold were to be applied rigidly in education, it would deny opportunities to those who could become excellent teachers. The university will interpret the threshold flexibly, admitting those who demonstrate the capacity to benefit from study at Edinburgh. That is the whole point of having a normal minimum entrance threshold.

The university will continue to take account of school-leaving grades, including actual and predicted grades above the threshold. Indeed, exam performance will continue to be the primary criterion for admission.

However, it is well established that grades are not a uniquely reliable indicator of performance at degree level: typically, studies find that the correlations are positive but low, suggesting that other factors are clearly influencing how well students perform.

The university will take full account of evidence of applicants' commitment to higher education, their motivation to succeed, and whether they have the personal resourcefulness to handle the challenges of a degree, all of which have been shown to be critical for success. The aim is to obtain a fairer assessment of academic potential.

Finally, in subject areas in which there is high demand, when all else is equal the university will then invoke a range of other criteria: those who have experienced serious disruption to their formal education; those who are disabled; those who are the first members of their family to go to university; and those who are local, bearing in mind that opportunities need to be created for those who are unable to move elsewhere to study.

The reason for choosing these additional criteria is that they will enable the university to create a student population that is more socially balanced than at present.

It should be clear, then, that Edinburgh University is not "dumbing down": it is not proposing that, because an applicant attended a school in a disadvantaged area, lower grades will be accepted for admission; it does not propose to operate a system of quotas; and it does not intend to discriminate against applicants from particular types of school, independent or otherwise. On the contrary, we welcome applicants from all schools and from all sections of the community.

The university is aware that it is committing itself to a selection process that will be complex. Work is continuing on the development of a system of evaluating each application in a comprehensive way and of doing so in a manner that is fair, consistent and transparent.

And it goes without saying that the university will operate its revised arrangements without compromising in any way the standards of excellence for which it is well known.

Professor Gordon Kirk is vice-principal of Edinburgh University.

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