Universities Increase Use Of Background Checking On Poor Students To Ensure Social Mobility

Is 'Fast-Tracking' Poor Students To University Fair?

Universities are increasingly relying on fact-checking students' backgrounds in an effort to boost recruitment of bright students from disadvantaged homes, it has been revealed.

More than a quarter (26%) of universities said they were looking at more contextual data when considering applications for the 2012 intake compared to last year, according to research by the ACS International Schools group.

But the figures will only serve to add fuel to the fire of a hotly-debated topic: is fast-tracking poorer students under the guise of "social engineering" fair? And moreover, is it even the role of universities to tackle such an issue?

The furore surrounding Vince Cable's appointment of Les Ebdon as the next director of the office of fair access (Offa) is indicative of the opposition to higher education (HE) institutions' attempts at "social engineering".

Critics of the appointment, which included chairman of the Conservatives' 1922 committee Graham Stuart, said the move would be "harmful" to HE.

"By interfering with the admissions policy of individual universities [Offa] is heading in the wrong direction," Tory MP Rob Wilson of the Fair Access to University Group (FAUG) said.

He added:

"Indeed, we believe that in the future Offa's influence on our world class institutions could be harmful. The evidence in our report and other published and compelling reports confirms that the problem recruiting disadvantaged students to top universities does not lie with university admissions policy."

"Any attempt to enforce social rather than academic admissions criteria upon universities is not only a distraction but counter-productive to the overall well-being of the sector."

Contextual data has been described by experts as "the next big debate in higher education". Certainly, it has a significant part to play in ensuring the brightest candidates have the best chance to attend university - regardless of their background.

And it seems Offa is keen for universities to up their game. In April the body warned leading universities they had to go further to create a "socially representative" student collective.

Sir Martin Harris, current director of Offa, told The Huffington Post:

“Everyone with the potential to succeed in higher education should have the opportunity to do so, whatever their life story so far. This is not social engineering, it is meritocracy. It’s about recognising excellent students with the potential, regardless of their family background or school, to become excellent graduates who will contribute to our economy and society."

A source from the HE sector said the idea poorer students were "fast-tracked" to university was nothing more than a myth.

"In reality, universities will have 'flags'. For example, applicants who have been in care for more than three months or come from a low-deprivation postcode or a school with low records of sending children to university, are all 'flagged up'. But this doesn't change whether you get offered a place; it is more likely you will be invited to an interview."

In response to Offa's announcement universities had to set more ambitious targets to recruit students from disadvantaged backgrounds, Ken Durham, chairman of the Headmasters and Headmistresses’ Conference, said: "We don’t help our education system by disadvantaging good schools and good students.

"Everyone believes in fair access to universities and everybody wants to see an admissions system that ensures that students with the best potential actually are the ones who get the best opportunities… But I don’t think that the way you get over that problem is to massage or fiddle with the A-level results."

Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, said the organisation's universities already take a range of factors into account to ensure the candidates with the most talent are identified.

"But admission to university is based on merit and fairness to all candidates," she added. "Any decisions about admissions must maintain high academic standards."

But HE action group Universities UK have come to blows with the universities group, saying there is "plenty" of evidence to support use of contextual data.

A spokesperson told HuffPost: "Student recruitment would be relatively straightforward if all young people had an equal chance of attaining the highest grades, regardless of where they lived, their parental background and the type of school they attended. However, this is not always the case.

"It is important to remember that universities are autonomous organisations, so each individual university decides what contextual data it considers.

"Research from both the University of Oxford and the University of Bristol shows that students from independent schools did less well in their final degree classification than state-school pupils, after controlling for prior academic attainment.

"Achievement at school or college is likely to be influenced by a range of factors such as background, neighbourhood and school attended. Universities know that to maintain excellence by recruiting the best applicants they cannot rely simply on A-level results or their equivalents as a measure for ability and potential."

It seems the argument is far from over. But, in the face of higher tuition fees, which will be implemented this September, it is even more imperative those who really matter - the students themselves - are not penalised. Whatever their "background".

CORRECTION NOTICE: We have removed the comment "The group has been criticised for its arrogance after its incoming executive director Alex Bols said admitting applications with worse A-levels than other students did a "disservice" to top universities". Alex Bols is the incoming director of the 1994 Group not the Russell Group.


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