Universities under fire for 'social engineering'

9 August 2012

Several Russell Group universities have been criticised for ‘socially engineering’ their undergraduate intake through the creation of controversial points systems.

Edinburgh, Leeds, Bristol and Birmingham have all established points systems for their admissions processes, which allocate more points to students from poor backgrounds. With such formal use of ‘contextual data’ such as economic background and the quality of schooling when considering applications, critics fear that middle-class applicants will be the ones who suffer, even if they have stronger academic credentials than their less socially advantaged counterparts.

The Sunday Telegraph reported that Edinburgh University has been implementing a numerical score system for the last two years. Their system allows a pupil who achieves three B grades at a “very low-performing school” to surpass in points a pupil with three A*s from a better school. The Sunday Telegraph‘s report highlights a similar situation for the past three years of Medicine applications at Leeds University, where a points system has been used in selecting applicants for interview. In light of their background, an applicant with three Bs from a poor school and low-income area would have the points equivalent of a less disadvantaged student with three A*s. A Leeds spokesman told The Sunday Telegraph that the system was suspended in 2012 and would not be used next year. The university declined to say why.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has stressed the need to take “into account the impact of background in assessing university applications” to create a “fair race”, a race that many parents and pupils currently fear is advantageous to applicants who are educated at public schools and have the financial assistance to nurture academic needs.

The disparity between universities in the treatment of socio-economic factors has sparked debate over the ambiguity of university admissions processes. Mary Curnock Cook, the chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) commented on the reliability of points systems, stating that she has “real concerns about whether the contextual data is sophisticated enough”, while the former permanent secretary of the Department for Education, Sir David Bell expressed his concern that favouring working-class applicants over their middle-class peers with stronger grades was “patronising” and has the potential to be viewed as a “back door route in”.

An article published in The Guardian in January by their Education Editor, Jeevan Vasagar shed some light on the use of contextual data in Cambridge admissions. Vasagar’s observation of a Natural Sciences admissions meeting at Churchill College showed that background factors – so-called “contextual flags” – are considered in a candidate’s application, and are examined in reference to their academic performance on a case-by-case basis. A Cambridge University spokesman confirmed to The Cambridge Student: “Every offer is tailored to an individual, taking into account a range of information and data.”

Cambridge bases its admission policy on evidence from admissions research, which can be found on its website. Such an example is a study by the Director of Admissions for the Cambridge colleges, Dr Geoff Parks, who having examined the results of finalists found no statistically significant differences in performance by school type, suggesting that applicants from opposing ends of the socio-economic spectrum are equally able to receive offers, based on potential and intellect.

Interviews are a crucial part of the Cambridge admissions process, and with over 80% of applicants being interviewed, it is the interview that allows the candidate to be more than an anonymous number on a page, defined by their financial situation. The Admissions Policy highlights “fairness” as an aim, ensuring that “each applicant is individually assessed, without partiality or bias”. Unlike most other universities where only certain subjects require interview, it seems that Cambridge offers an equalising platform for its applicants to better demonstrate their potential.

Universities have felt an increase in pressure from the government to admit a higher percentage of applicants from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds, with the new director of the government’s Office for Fair Access (OFFA), Les Ebdon going so far as to threaten universities with fines if they do not widen their Access and engage with pupils. Cambridge University maintains it spends over £27 million per year on ‘outreach’ in order to attract students of high potential and intellectual merit, “irrespective of social, racial, religious and financial considerations”.

Joanne Stewart – News Reporter

Photo – Jimmy Appleton