The government’s policy on university admissions is poor, both educationally and ethically (UK)

By Peter Scott

Government policy, which means universities will rely solely only on A-level grades to choose students, will simply privilege the already privileged, says Peter Scott.

A long time ago, I remember having lunch with a vice-chancellor, (who had better remain unnamed). Suddenly he made a dramatic gesture, sweeping off the table what he contemptuously called the “tail” of less well-qualified students. That was his plan for success. As a result, his university shrank in size – and ambition.

I found it a chilling gesture at the time. Just the week before, I had interviewed Karl Popper, the Austrian-born philosopher, then in the last years of his life. One thing stuck, and sticks, in my mind about Popper, author of the famous book The Open Society And Its Enemies (mischievously glossed by some of his critics, in recognition of his well-known “difficult” manner, as The Open Society By One of Its Enemies). Popper told me why he had deserted his youthful Marxism.

He had witnessed a street brawl between extreme right and left in Vienna in the 1920s, a routine occurrence then. He had suddenly thought: here are people ready to kill and die for an idea – but what if that idea proves to be wrong? Their crimes would have been committed or their lives lost for nothing.

The vice-chancellor I had invited to lunch was also prepared to sacrifice flesh-and-blood individuals for an idea: better-qualified students in the mass. No one was actually going to die as a result. But their hopes of a university education and a better life were going to die as they were swept away with the crumbs.

I still find his attitude chilling because up and down England his successors are now behaving, or being forced to behave, in the same totalitarian way – a harsh word but a fair one. They are sifting the wheat – students with AAB grades at A-level – from the chaff – those who missed their grades or never had the opportunities and resources to aspire so high in the first place.

That is the inevitable effect of the government’s decision to allow universities to recruit as many AAB students as they like, while sharply constraining the overall number of students. Vice-chancellors and admission tutors now have to lure AAB students away from other universities with bursaries and scholarships, or bribe them to stay. They are operating on the principle, to paraphrase Mr Micawber, AAB “result happiness”; AAC “result misery”.

There are two fundamental objections to this policy – one educational and the second ethical. The first is that universities have always chosen students according to their future potential, not past performance. Of course, A-level grades are important evidence of potential. But they should never be treated as decisive evidence, even in an age of mass higher education when computer-generated offers are almost inevitable.

To rely on A-level grades alone is, in effect, further to privilege the already privileged, to give disproportionate rewards to those whose way in life has been smooth. The correlation between school performance and social advantage is too plain to deny. For years universities have attempted, feebly perhaps, to level the playing field by making differential offers. Now, on the fiat of David Willetts, they are no longer so free to do so.

To rely on A-level grades also means those choosing students can no longer take into account character (surely beloved of Conservatives?) or experience of life or other less-academic attributes that enliven a university community. Goodbye to well-rounded people. We are all swots now. So why waste time interviewing candidates?

The ethical objection to the government’s AAB apartheid takes me back to Popper on the Viennese streets 80 years ago. The arguments for widening participation, and for (genuinely) fair access, are usually seen as rooted in ideology of the kind that Popper disapproved of (“social engineering” is the standard put-down). That is only partly true, although unlike Popper I would not disavow collective action to secure social justice.

The argument is also about individuals. First, is it fair to offer students an enticement, in the shape of a generous bursary or an attractive fee waiver, in the expectation that they will get AABs, only to withdraw it if they slip a grade (and since when have A-level examiners been infallible?).

But it goes deeper still. The vice-chancellor who swept the “tail” into oblivion from that restaurant table, and the vice-chancellors now struggling to “manage” their AAB entrants, are behaving in the same way as the zealots of right and left who battled in the streets. They are putting an idea, an abstraction, a policy construct, before the lives of real people who are born, live, love and are bound to die.

Peter Scott is professor of higher education studies at the Institute of Education

Source: Guardian Education, Monday 6 February 2012 19.45 GMT