THE BLOG

Can the United States Teach Us to Improve the Experience Our Universities Offer?

26/02/2013 13:07 GMT | Updated 27/04/2013 10:12 BST

Around 4,000 students from the UK are currently in the midst of applying to study at American universities.

Their evenings and weekends are taken up with completing application essays which, unlike our system of submitting one personal statement to UCAS, are often bespoke to each university, personal and probing.

Questions students may face when applying to an American university include, "What has someone said, written, or expressed in some fashion that is especially meaningful to you. Why?" and "If you could have lunch with any person, living, dead, or fictional, who would it be and what would you discuss?"

The questions are designed to draw out more than just a candidate's achievements and work experience, and look to their personality and outlook.

In 2007, New York University asked, "A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in the college community or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you."

And that is the reason for their probing.

American universities intentionally shape their year's intake. They seek out a diverse mix of alumni from varying backgrounds and cultures, with contrasting values, political views and life experiences.

When this works, an American university education widens a student's outlook, teaches them to participate in a democratic society, and opens their minds to aspects of life which they may never have considered. Their university experience is well-rounded; debates, both in and out of the classroom, are balanced and lively; their experience of society, as they hope to move into positions of power, is broadened immeasurably. In short, the graduate's education has moved beyond academia.

In the UK, we do not apply this same practice.

There is, to my mind, no question of the value of diversity in university, and I agree with the principles of United States' approach.

I do not, however, think that we should apply it in this country, as it has one fatal flaw.

A quick search for examples of good application essays brings up reams of expertly crafted, almost literary essays.

Those with money can buy an excellent education. We would be naïve to think that a state school can compete with a private school, both in coaching for exams and in applications to further education. Teachers in private schools are able to devote hours to individual students, and painstakingly help them to produce first class applications.

State school students and teachers cannot compete, and would certainly not be able to match the quality of application essays from well-funded schools. So, with the best will in the world, if we applied the American system, students from wealthy backgrounds would still hold the upper hand and our universities would still under-represent the working class.

Students applying to a university in this country are asked to submit a personal statement, detailing their enthusiasm for their chosen subject and their extra-curricular experience.

Much has been said about personal statements over the last few months, since the Sutton Trust found them to further disadvantage poorer students.

More wealthy applicants often reel off long lists of work experience brought about by privilege. One applicant's list included working "for a designer in London; as a model; on the trading floor of a London broker's firm; with my local BBC radio station; events planning with a corporate five-star country hotel; in the marketing team of a leading City law firm... and most recently managing a small gastro pub".

In contrast, the Sutton Trust highlighted that for state school applicants, "work-related activity is more likely to involve a Saturday job or a school visit to a business."

UK students, of course, also rely on their A Level results to demonstrate their aptitude for a subject. Again, those with a private education tend to fare better than those without.

Furthermore, recent research has shown that fewer than half of state school teachers encourage Oxbridge applications, which explains why many talented students are failing to apply for university places even with the existence of bursaries and support.

Despite working together to achieve best practice and investing in ways to widen participation, universities can only choose from the applications they receive, which at present are overwhelmingly from students with more affluent backgrounds.

And who can blame those students who do not apply? The odds are against them and they must wonder how they can possibly demonstrate their potential when competing with peers they cannot reasonably expect to outshine.

This current system, then, in which admissions offices offer places based on personal statements and A Levels, will never lead to a diverse alumni.

What is needed is a system which encourages all students to fight for a place at university, regardless of their background or education to date.

We need an admissions process which can be carried out away from the helping hands of personal tutors, as they are the preserve of the wealthy and skew results.

This is the value of admissions tests, which are designed to be a test of aptitude, rather than educational achievement.

Admissions tests offer students the opportunity to display their innate ability in the skills required for a specific subject, for example deduction, comprehension and interpretation. Their format is such that they cannot be revised for, making them impervious to expensive coaching. They are carried out in test conditions, keeping private tutors at bay.

Admissions tests level the playing field for all applicants. Not only does this provide a balanced view of each applicant to universities, but it is vital in changing the mind-sets of students who do not feel that they are able to compete with their peers.

As a director of LNAT, an admissions test for law, my role is to empower students from all walks of life to fight for their place in higher education. I believe that once potential candidates see that admissions tests give them a fighting chance at demonstrating their raw potential, students from all backgrounds will not be put off by under-confidence and a lack of encouragement, and will finally apply to university.

Only when a diverse cultural mix of applicants offers itself to be chosen can a year group take such a form. Only when the application process is entirely blind to social influencing factors can a diverse mix occur organically.

This way lies unforced, naturally occurring diversity, fairness for all, and an education that spreads far beyond the text book.