Why British universities should rethink selecting students by academic ability

The future hinges too much on this piece of paper. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

Britain’s university entrance system, in which students are selected based on their academic grades, is the main reason why efforts to widen access to higher education beyond the country’s upper and middle classes have had only modest success. In England, 18-year-olds from the most advantaged areas are still three times more likely to enter higher education than those from the most disadvantaged areas. Unless the current selection process is abolished, universities will continue to create unequal opportunities and drive social inequality.

Jobs with prestigious law and accountancy firms are dominated by graduates from very selective Russell Group universities, according to a recent report from the UK’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (SMCP). The report’s authors argue that a stratified higher education system is filtering privileged access to these highly remunerated careers. This perpetuates future unequal access by the children of these high flyers to private schools or state schools in “good areas” that feed highly selective universities.

Elite, highly-selective universities, such as the Russell Group, may claim to be engines of economic growth, but their role as engines of inequality compromises this claim.

Problems started post-war

The roots of this problem lie in how higher education grew after 1945. Expansion was needed for economic recovery after World War II, but existing universities were reluctant to grow if this meant providing vocational courses. Instead, places were expanded in regional technical colleges, institutions that had developed from mechanics institutes and trade schools for local students who could not afford to go to a university.

Starting in 1956, a select group of these were designated as Colleges of Advanced Technology with national intakes. This prefigured the wave of polytechnics created at the end of the 1960s, later granted university status in 1992, among them my own institution, Middlesex University.

As Eric Robinson wrote in his 1968 book, The New Polytechnics, this was potentially the start of a new vision for higher education based on open entry and lifelong learning rather than selection at entry and just full-time degree study. Robinson wanted the polytechnics to pioneer comprehensive higher education. But this did not happen. Only The Open University, established in 1969 as a distance learning institution, adopted a policy of no academic selection on entry, which still stands.

Until 1945 university entry often only required six passes at GCE O level – the secondary school leaving exam. But over subsequent decades tough academic selection came to be seen as a hallmark of quality. Paradoxically, academic selection in secondary education, using the 11-plus exam in the last year of primary education to determine entry to grammar schools, came to be seen as flawed and unfair. About 90% of pupils now attend comprehensive schools, compared to 8%, mostly part-time students, in what might be described as comprehensive higher education offered at the Open University.

A divided system

In effect, a divide continues between “teaching universities” (predominantly the ex-polytechnics) for students disproportionately from low-income households and “research universities” for students from affluent backgrounds – from which the firms in the SMCP’s study recruit.

This polarisation has been seen as an issue by successive governments but only in respect of attempting to increase the number of high-attaining students from low-income backgrounds studying in the very selective research universities. The low number of students from affluent backgrounds in many of the ex-polytechnics receives no policy attention.

Academic selection filters young people into segregated working and social lives but all students may be missing out by being educated in a class-divided system. The evidence that helped end mass academic selection in secondary education, acted on by Labour phasing our grammar schools following its 1964 general election victory and continued by subsequent Conservative governments, could also be applied to higher education. This evidence suggests that having a mix in terms of both prior attainment and social intake could benefit overall academic results, attendance and course completion rates.

The result would not just be a more inclusive society but a society with higher productivity and economic growth. The government’s recent decision to end student number controls in England – allowing universities to accept as many students as they want – is a step in the right direction, but it needs to be complemented by opening up higher education by reforming academic selection.

We need to mix students up. Lucky Business/www.shutterstock.com

Is abandoning academic selection practical?

Just banning academic selection would be difficult: there is likely to be little consensus about alternative recruitment methods, especially in the absence of university catchment areas. But there are steps that could be taken.

Building on the foundation programmes already run by many universities, courses could be required to have entry pathways with two or more entry requirement levels. There could be quotas for the number of students with each of these different levels of prior attainment. They would start at different points depending on their entry pathway and exit at different points such as an honours degree or master’s – but always spend a large part of their course together.

Scholarships could be made available for applicants with high prior attainment who choose to study in non-elite universities where these students are under-represented. This could be funded by a levy on highly selective institutions that would reduce as the policy starts having an impact.

And to end biased perceptions that some universities are better than others that are driven largely by how selective they are, government could legislate for academic credit earned in one university to be transferable to any other, as long as institutions meet quality assurance expectations.

Without tackling the issue of academic selection in higher education, universities are likely to remain part of the problem of inequality and not part of the solution.