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Will We Ever Be Satisfied That University Admissions Processes Are Fair?

20/03/2013 15:31 GMT | Updated 20/05/2013 10:12 BST

Universities are under intense scrutiny to prove that their admissions processes are fair. The more high-profile the institution, the more intense the level of scrutiny often is.

And I believe that this is as it should be. The importance of opening up the opportunity of higher education to all that want it cannot be overstated. Universities should, and do, strive to build upon existing fair access procedure. To rest on their laurels would be inexcusable. Aside from acknowledging each individual's rights, we must ensure that those who seek to obtain positions of power in society through higher education represent the whole country, not just an elite few.

But is it possible for universities to implement admissions processes that are clearly, indisputably fair? The issue is so important, and the views on how to achieve equality are so far-reaching, that universities find it near-impossible to silence their critics despite huge efforts.

For example, David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham, has been campaigning for years to discredit Oxford University's applications processes as unfair. Recently he used admissions data obtained under the freedom of information act to accuse the school of 'institutional bias' and failing to admit an acceptable level of black and minority ethnic students who achieved top grades at A Level.

The university has several procedures in place to ensure that applicants from all backgrounds are encouraged to apply for places on courses, and vehemently defends its dedication to fair access. These include its £5m per year budget for funding and bursaries, and its UNIQ summer schools, which see 1,000 state school students invited to the university for a free, week-long course and taste of life at Oxford.

But these measures, according to David Lammy, are not enough to ensure a fair representation of those who apply are admitted to study at Oxford.

Cambridge was unable to submit its current figures for scrutiny but also came under fire from David Lammy, despite many measures to achieve its 'aim to raise the awareness among academically able UK black and minority ethnic students that studying at Cambridge is achievable.'

It begs the question, will we ever be satisfied that universities do enough to achieve diversity and equality in their intake? Will the admissions figures ever truly match up to what we expect them to be? And is it always the university's fault if they don't? After all, universities can only choose from the applications they receive, and they have a duty to select only the best applicants for the course. If the best applications genuinely are predominantly from one demographic, should some excellent candidates lose out to allow for positive discrimination?

The one department across the whole of Oxford University to be singled out as achieving equality was law, which statistically showed no significant difference in success rates between white and non-white students. How come law was able to live up to David Lammy's expectations when other courses, despite countless efforts, were unable to?

Oxford University is one of ten in the country that requires those applying to study law to sit an aptitude test, and uses the results of the test alongside A Levels, personal statements and interviews, to build a holistic view of each applicant before offering them a position on a law course.

The National Admissions Test for Law, or LNAT, was established eight years ago to test a student's natural, raw ability in law. It offers students the opportunity to display their innate ability in the skills required for law, for example deduction, comprehension and interpretation. Its format is such that it cannot be revised for, making it impervious to expensive coaching, and it is carried out in test conditions, keeping private tutors at bay. The LNAT levels the playing so that all applicants, regardless of their wealth, race, or any other factor, are judged on their raw potential. It provides admissions tutors with an extra, essential tool when selecting their intake.

Little can recommend the LNAT more than its success at Oxford; a university which prides itself on its fair access measures and whose admissions statistics have been picked apart by those seeking to discredit them. The LNAT has stood up against the toughest test it is likely to ever be subject to, and it has passed with flying colours.

It is food for thought for those universities scratching their heads, wondering what more they can do to achieve the equality they strive for.