University challenge

21st February 2003 at 00:00
THE reaction to Edinburgh University's move to overhaul its admissions system was predictable. The intention is, of course, to widen access for promising students. Critics may be right to argue that the pressure on Edinburgh and other universities to do so comes not from an innate sense of fair play but from the rather sharper concern that they may suffer financially if they do not broaden their appeal.

But it is hardly revolutionary to suggest that pupils' personal qualities matter, even if they do not match the exacting standards demanded on entry to higher education. As Edinburgh University points out, its college of medicine and veterinary medicine has assessed academic potential on the basis of commitment, motivation and resourcefulness for a number of years.

And, as we also report this week (page four), aptitudes are to be taken into account on a wider Scottish basis when students apply for medical or veterinary courses. Oxbridge and independent schools have for long scrutinised applicants in interviews, yet they do not face accusations of "rigging" their procedures.

Edinburgh University, it should be noted, has also set new minimum entry standards of four Higher B passes and three A-level B awards, allowing it to take a more equitable view of borderline cases. This is hardly evidence of dumbing down or, as one newspaper editorial put it, "abandoning wholesale" objective entry requirements. If universities are found to be enrolling students entirely unsuited to their courses, drop-out rates will tell their own story.

One stark problem for the future is that recruitment to teaching will increasingly face a crisis if potential talent is hobbled by traditional entry requirements at a time when the pupil population is in decline and better paid jobs are available elsewhere. Pupils and their parents know perfectly well that teachers' aptitudes and personalities are as important as their knowledge. How do we ensure we get these rounded individuals into the classroom if universities do not draw from a wider pool?

The Quality Assurance Agency for higher education already exists to supervise the fairness of admissions procedures and can alert us if the pendulum is swinging too far in one direction.

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