University entrance: tail wagging the dog?
17 Jun 2008 The Guardian
University must not be about privilege
Mike Baker argues that entrance examinations could lead to unfairness
Tuesday June 17, 2008
If you repeat an untruth often enough, people will start to believe it. We are constantly told that grade inflation is so rampant that everyone gets an A grade. You would almost believe A-levels were being given away with breakfast cereal.
Yet how many people know what proportion of all 17- to 18-year-olds actually achieve three grade As at A-level? Test yourself, you may be surprised. Is it a) 25% b) 20% or c) 15%?
In fact, it's none of these. The answer is 4%. Yes, only 26,000 out of an age cohort of around 600,000 students achieve three grade As at A-level.
Moreover, from this September, A-levels are being reformed and a new A* grade is coming in for candidates achieving more than 90% in at least two units. It is estimated that only 3,000 students will get three A* grades. Put another way, that is 0.5% of the cohort.
So surely even Imperial College, which has announced it may introduce its own entrance tests because it can no longer rely on A-levels, will be able to discriminate on the basis of an examination system that can filter out the top performing 0.5%? After all, even if every student with three grade A*s applied to Imperial, that would only be about two applicants for each full-time undergraduate place.
If this habit of lamenting grade inflation continues, will some universities call for an A** grade? More worrying, will A-levels become an irrelevance for students aiming for the most selective university courses?
Do we really want to be like the US, where drilling for the SAT, the test used for university admissions, dominates the final years of high school?
It all seems a case of the tail wagging the dog. Why reform qualifications taken by the broad sweep of young people on the basis of their value as a selection filter for a small number of top universities?
These are worrying times for anyone concerned about fair admissions to universities. The latest figures show that top universities are failing to increase their intake from state schools or from lower socio-economic families.
The spread of individual university entrance exams, the arrival of the A*, and the proliferation of new qualifications could make this a very uneven playing field. Some schools will respond to the A* by offering specific teaching and coaching aimed at that level. For others, it will realistically not be on the agenda for most of their students. So some students will get lots of advice and help, others very little. Similarly, if university entrance tests proliferate, some schools will offer specific preparation for them. We will be returning to the days when some schools encouraged pupils back after A-levels for the so-called "seventh term" entrance exam for Oxbridge.
I remember those days at my selective state school. For a term we had one-to-one tuition, backed up by excellent library and learning facilities. Unlike some schools, which sent busloads to Oxbridge each year, my school sent only a handful. But even we had a huge advantage over others at schools with no tradition of preparation for these specialised exams.
In an enlightened move, Oxford and Cambridge dropped these general entrance exams. Now, though, we are seeing their return for subjects such as law and medicine. If the Imperial proposal goes ahead, this would be the first general entrance test since Oxford abolished its equivalent in 1995.
This matters. Not because people want to enforce quotas in university admissions. This is not about social engineering. It is about not wasting potential.
The best universities should be for the brightest students, not those students who have received the best preparation.