Let admissions get personal

1st September 2006 at 01:00
It's late summer, A-level pass rates have risen again and the debate about standards starts afresh. As I write, a thunderstorm is unleashed.

The main focus of concern seems to be the difficulty experienced by most prestigious universities in differentiating between the good and the very good in awarding places. But do they deserve our sympathy?

In this college, we have more than 1,000 1516-year-old applicants each year. We provide a range of taster opportunities, open days and induction sessions designed to inform the prospective student and to achieve a close match between their interests and abilities and the courses they are choosing. A detailed one-to-one interview and further discussion at enrolment in August take this process a couple of stages further. An offer is made which basically says: we think thisthese course(s) are appropriate for you and we believe you will succeed at them, barring personal crises.

Only at the end of this period, a week before the new academic year starts, do we have the benefit of the actual GCSE results in front of us. Like us, the universities have predicted grades in front of them when they select from the applicants.

But they also have detailed schoolcollege references, actual GCSE and AS results and personal statements from students to support their decision-making, none of which is available to us when our students apply to join the college.

It seems to me these universities want the jam and the cream. They want the best and most appropriate students but they also want the A-level exam grading system to carry out the selection process for them. In other words, they want to abdicate their responsibility to get things right.

In the old days, Oxford and Cambridge paid little attention to A-levels although this was at a time when, in the eyes of some, the exam had real gold standard currency. They assessed their applicants over a period of days in exams which were set by their lecturers and which, in all cases were more demanding and challenging than the A-levels taken by the students. They then proceeded to interview students, one, two or three times before making final offers.

Universities have become very lazy. They rarely interview, they have more information to go on than in the past and yet they seem to regard it as an imposition to have to devise other tests or devices to select the best for the most competitive courses.

The old Oxbridge system would no longer be appropriate. It was hugely expensive and unfairly favoured fee-paying schools. We do not know if it was better at selecting the brightest than current methods. Higher numbers of students getting firsts and 2:1 degrees in the past 30 years suggests it was not. But it certainly did not feel an anonymous process whereas for many students nowadays the process of applying for a university course and being selected is often highly impersonal.

Adding one's own selection procedures to the A-level grade system would restore the personal link between the student and the university. If universities want more information, they should look at marks, not grades, or they should vote for a post-exam system of applying for places, which could be done comfortably if they deferred the start of their academic year to January.

Two years ago, the Tomlinson Committee proposed a new diploma system which would have placed A-levels firmly within a new structure but have provided employers and universities with much more information about the breadth and depth of student achievements. This was rejected by the Government. The last thing we want and need is A-level reform which only delivers benefits to admission tutors.

Nigel Robbins is principal of Cirencester College

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