Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Is university admission an academic decision?

One topic which exercises many universities is admissions: not only for the obvious reason of recruiting enough students to meet targets, but also for the question about who should be in charge.

Across UK higher education, the underlying culture is that it is an academic decision: suitability to study for a programme should be determined by the academics who teach the programme.  This doesn’t mean that actual academics always take decisions, however: many universities have agreed that specific decisions can be taken by professional service staff, as long as they fall within parameters agreed with admissions tutors. So, if a student gets more than so-many tariff points, or better than such-and-such A level grades, they can be offered a place without reference to a tutor.

David Willetts (in his very interesting book, A University Education) reminds us that the UK is odd in this regard. In the US, admissions decisions are not typically made by faculty tutors, or not even in consultation with faculty tutors. Decisions can be based, for example, upon familial donations; upon siblings having attended; or on residency within a particular state. (Before you get too shocked, I recommend that you have a read of Willetts’ book: there’s more too it than nepotism and a disregard for academic standards.)

The difference can be understood, I think, in relation to a very good underlying principle, which is that academic decisions can only be made by academics in the discipline concerned. This is at the heart of academic freedom. Ask yourself a question: what is the academic decision which is at the heart of university admission?  Is it about who socially gets to do higher education? That doesn’t feel academic to me. Is it about whether a person has the necessary prerequisite knowledge? (For instance, do you need A-level maths to take the first-year modules on the programme?) That sounds much more academic, and is at the heart of the differences in the UK. In the UK specialism takes place at the start of university education; in the US students enrol, study a wide variety of modules for a couple of years, and then choose their specialism. And they take an extra year (at least) to study, so there’s time for this breadth.

It's that picture again! 
I don’t think its controversial to say that there are US universities operating this approach which are at least as good as UK universities. The UK systems generates good graduates a year sooner than the US system, but that isn’t because we’re cleverer: its because the system is structured to produce graduates after three years. As part of this, it is necessary to have early specialisation, and this means that admissions decision have to consider specific subject knowledge and readiness for study.

Now I am going to say something slightly controversial. These tests are more about the resources devoted to pre-university education and upbringing rather than any intrinsic academic merit. We know that a private school education boosts a person’s chances of getting good A-level grades and hence a place at a ‘better’ university. We also know that, in aggregate, for students with the same A-level grades, those educated at state schools will do better overall than those educated at private school (see, for instance, this HEFCE research). This means, I think, that private school with better resources, smaller classes, and concomitant greater parental support for learning – has a better short-term impact.  But when learning resources and chances are evened out at university, the impact dissipates.

The point is that university entry based on A levels is about readiness to study. Background knowledge, confidence and social capital are what matters, because this enables a person to graduate in three years.

On this telling, university admissions should really be understood as a business decision. Remove some of the selective elements, and you won’t get the three-year throughput upon which the UK higher education system is built. (The development of foundation years to enable wider entry to selective universities supports this point: only by an extra year can pre-university educational differences be resolved.) University admission is only an academic decision because we set the system up to make it so. More time at university would enable foundation level study to become a norm. And at that point entry decisions would not be about pre-requisite knowledge, and entry barriers would come down.

And this is my challenge to the Office for Students, and to the UK government’s review of higher education. If you’re serious about removing social barriers to higher education participation, what are you going to do to enable longer degree programmes, to take the apparently academic decision out of the admissions loop?

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