Fair admissions to higher education - Digital Education

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Fair admissions to higher education - Digital Education

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www.admissions-review.org.uk
Fair admissions to higher education: recommendations for good practice
Admissions to Higher Education Steering Group

Admissions to Higher Education Fair Admissions to Higher Education: Recommendations for Good Practice

Contents

Foreword

2

Executive summary

4

Section A: Background

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Section B: What are the issues?

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Section C: A fair admissions system

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Section D: Principles underpinning fair admissions and guidelines

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for implementation

Section E: Recommendations requiring co-ordination across the

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education system

Section F: Options for assessing merit

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Section G: Reviewing progress towards fair admissions

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Section H: Pratical implications of the recommendations

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References

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Appendix 1: Terms of reference and membership of the Steering Group

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Appendix 2: List of consultation events

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Appendix 3: Overview of responses to consultations

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Appendix 4: Schooling effects

69

Appendix 5: Legal issues

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Appendix 6: Model institutional admissions policy

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Appendix 7: Example feedback letter

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Appendix 8: Glossary

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Appendix 9: Summary table of problems, principles and recommendations 86

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Admissions to Higher Education Fair Admissions to Higher Education: Recommendations for Good Practice
Foreword by Professor Steven Schwartz
I was asked by Charles Clarke, Secretary of State for Education and Skills, to lead an independent review of the options that English higher education institutions should consider when assessing the merit of applicants for their courses, and to report on the high-level principles underlying these options. I was supported in this review by a Steering Group representing a range of stakeholders. Our review began in June 2003, and this is our final report.
Admissions are the responsibility of universities and colleges themselves, and rightly so. Institutions should be able to set their own criteria, choose their own assessment methods, and select their own students. But it is important that everyone has confidence in the integrity of the admissions process. Access to higher education matters to many people, and so do fair admissions.
Our inquiry has looked at the available evidence relating to admissions. We published two consultation papers and received a large number of responses. I have personally debated and discussed with a wide range of people and organisations some of the most controversial issues facing our review. How do we define merit and what is a fair admissions system? To what extent should background factors be considered when selecting students? What exactly does transparency of admissions criteria and processes mean? Are some assessment methods more reliable and valid than others? Can a system in which large numbers of applicants are offered places based on predicted examination results be fair?
The Steering Group presents in this report a set of five principles which it believes are the basis of fair admissions. We recognise that there may be challenges for some institutions in implementing the principles; but we also believe that it is in the interests of all universities and colleges, as well as applicants, that they are adopted. We make a series of wider recommendations aimed at the education sector as a whole, and we look to those identified in the report to progress these recommendations swiftly.
It is our intention that this report acts both as a catalyst for action, and as a practical guide to fair admissions to which institutions can refer in reviewing and developing their admissions policies and processes.
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Admissions to Higher Education Fair Admissions to Higher Education: Recommendations for Good Practice
In publishing this report, I would like to place on record my thanks to the members of the Steering Group, who contributed generously of their time and ideas, and brought a range of opinion and experience to bear on this complex topic. Finally, to end on a personal note, I was delighted to act as Chair of this review, because I believe that we should be trying to build a society in which as many people as possible are free to make choices about how they live and free to achieve their potential. The fairest and most acceptable way to achieve this is through higher education. If we have a fair admissions system, then success will not depend on connections, money or influence but on talent and motivation. This is a goal worth working towards. Steven Schwartz Vice-Chancellor, Brunel University Chair of the Admissions to Higher Education Review September 2004
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Admissions to Higher Education Fair Admissions to Higher Education: Recommendations for Good Practice
Executive Summary
1. Background 1.1 The Admissions to Higher Education Steering Group was asked to develop a
statement of high-level principles about admissions that all English institutions providing higher education (HE) could adopt. Its terms of reference, and details of its membership, are available at Appendix 1.
1.2 The Steering Group consulted on the issues relating to fair admissions in autumn 2003 and produced a series of draft recommendations for consultation in spring 2004. This is the final report.
2. Why are admissions important? 2.1 A fair and transparent admissions system is essential for all applicants. Higher
education is a valuable commodity: it can affect salary, job security and power to influence society. The number of people in England who seek an HE qualification has grown enormously, with over 934,000 full-time undergraduate students and an additional 521,000 studying part-time. Overall, the benefits of HE are strong. But they also vary considerably from course to course and between institutions, in terms of both the learning experience and graduate outcomes. The sector is diverse and choice of course and institution matters. In this context, it is vital that all stakeholders in the admissions process – applicants, parents, schools, colleges, teaching and admissions staff – believe the system is fair.
3. What are the issues? 3.1 The student population studying HE is diverse, but certain groups are still
under-represented. A large number of factors can affect who participates in HE, of which admissions is one. The remit of the Steering Group is not to make recommendations on all these factors, but to focus solely on admissions. Within that context the Group accepts the evidence that admissions processes are generally fair. However, it also believes there is room for improvement and it has identified a number of issues that need to be addressed as we move towards our goal of an admissions system that is both fair and seen to be fair:
• There are differing interpretations of merit and fairness;
• It can be difficult for applicants to know how they will be assessed;
• The information used in assessing applicants may not be equally reliable and consistent;
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Admissions to Higher Education Fair Admissions to Higher Education: Recommendations for Good Practice
• Some courses have high drop-out rates, which may be related to admissions processes;
• For courses that are over-subscribed, it can be difficult for admissions staff to select from a growing pool of highly-qualified applicants;
• Some applicants face a burden of additional assessment;
• There is uneven awareness of and response to the increasing diversity of applicants, qualifications and pathways into higher education;
• Most offers depend on predicted grades, not confirmed examination results;
• The legislation applicable to admissions is complex and there is uneven understanding of what it means for admissions policies and processes.
3.2 These issues are addressed in a) the Group’s high-level principles for fair admissions; b) the implementation guidelines developed by the Group to support individual institutions in implementing the principles; and c) a set of wider recommendations for the sector as a whole and for key organisations involved in admissions. All of these are summarised below.
4. What is a fair admissions system? 4.1 The Steering Group believes a fair admissions system is one that provides
equal opportunity for all individuals, regardless of background, to gain admission to a course suited to their ability and aspirations. Everyone agrees that applicants should be chosen on merit: the problem arises when we try to define it. Merit could mean admitting applicants with the highest examination marks, or it could mean taking a wider view about each applicant’s achievements and potential.
4.2 Prior educational attainment data remains the best single indicator of success at undergraduate level, and continues to be central to the admissions process.1 However, the Group has considered suggestions that equal examination grades do not necessarily represent equal potential. The effect of social background on attainment begins to appear by the age of two. Many applicants have responsibilities at home or at work, or interrupted schooling, that can affect their educational achievement. And recent research shows that, all other things being equal, students from state schools and colleges tend to perform better at undergraduate level than students from independent schools and colleges.
4.3 It is not the task of higher education admissions to compensate for educational or social disadvantage. But identifying latent talent and potential,
1 This has been demonstrated in respect of A level results, although there is currently a lack of similar evidence about the predictive validity of other Level 3 qualifications.
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Admissions to Higher Education Fair Admissions to Higher Education: Recommendations for Good Practice
which may not fully be demonstrated by examination results, is a legitimate aim for universities and colleges which seek to recruit the best possible students regardless of background. Eighty-six per cent of respondents to the Group’s first consultation agreed that universities and colleges should consider the obstacles an applicant might have had to overcome, and 65% thought they should take account of an applicant’s educational context.
4.4 The Steering Group does not want to bias admissions in favour of applicants from certain backgrounds or schools. The Group does, however, believe that it is fair and appropriate to consider contextual factors as well as formal educational achievement, given the variation in learners’ opportunities and circumstances. The Group also wants to ensure that the factors considered in the assessment process are accurate and relevant and allow all applicants equal opportunity to demonstrate achievements and potential. This is facilitated by ‘holistic assessment,’ or taking into account all relevant factors, including the context of applicants’ achievements, backgrounds and relevant skills. ‘Broad brush’ approaches are generally not appropriate; applicants must be assessed as individuals.
4.5 The Group recognises that there are practical limitations in the short term on such a comprehensive approach and recommends that, initially at least, institutions apply holistic assessment to borderline applicants and applicants for over-subscribed courses. The Group believes that it is desirable for even the first sift to consider contextual factors in some way, but this will require the standardised provision of agreed information on application forms.
4.6 The Group believes it is justifiable for an institution to consider an applicant’s contribution to the learning environment; and that institutions and courses which confer particular benefits upon their graduates have an obligation to make reasonable efforts to recruit a diverse student community. The presence of a range of experiences in the laboratory or the seminar room enriches the learning environment for all students. A diverse student community is likely to enhance all students’ skills of critical reasoning, teamwork and communication and produce graduates better able to contribute to a diverse society. The Group is aware of a recent decision by the US Supreme Court upholding a university’s ‘compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body’.
4.7 Fairness does not mean that the Government should choose students. The Steering Group wishes to affirm its belief in the autonomy of institutions over admissions policies and decisions. Moreover, it should be clearly recognised that it is perfectly legitimate for admissions staff to seek out the most academically excellent students.
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Admissions to Higher Education Fair Admissions to Higher Education: Recommendations for Good Practice
5. Recommended principles 5.1 The Steering Group recommends that all universities and colleges should
adopt the following principles of fair admissions:
Principle 1: A fair admissions system should be transparent Universities and colleges should provide, consistently and efficiently through appropriate mechanisms, the information applicants need to make an informed choice. This should include the institution’s admissions policy and detailed criteria for admission to courses, along with an explanation of admissions processes. It should include a general indication of the weight given to prior academic achievement and potential demonstrated by other means.
The latest available information should also be provided about the entry qualifications of applicants accepted on each course, and procedures for complaints and appeals. Institutions should conduct and publish a periodic analysis of admissions data, and provide feedback on request to unsuccessful applicants.
Principle 2: A fair admissions system should enable institutions to select students who are able to complete the course as judged by their achievements and their potential Ability to complete the course must be an essential criterion for admission. In assessing applicants’ merit and potential, institutions may legitimately consider other factors in addition to examination results, including: the educational context of an applicant’s formal achievement; other indicators of potential and capability (such as the results of additional testing or assessment, including interviews, or non-academic experiences and relevant skills); and how an individual applicant’s experiences, skills and perspectives could contribute to the learning environment.
However, applicants should be assessed as individuals: it is not appropriate to treat one applicant automatically more or less favourably by virtue of his or her background, school or college. At any stage in the admissions process, all applicants should be given an equal opportunity to provide relevant information or demonstrate relevant skills. Admissions criteria should not include factors irrelevant to the assessment of merit: for example, institutions should not give preference to the relatives of graduates or benefactors. Admissions staff have the discretion to vary the weight they give to examination results and other indicators of achievement and potential and therefore to vary the offer that they make to applicants, providing this is done in a way which is consistent with the principles of fair admissions.
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Admissions to Higher Education Fair Admissions to Higher Education: Recommendations for Good Practice
Principle 3: A fair admissions system should strive to use assessment methods that are reliable and valid Assessment can legitimately include a broad range of factors. Some of these factors are amenable to ‘hard’ quantifiable measures, while others rely on qualitative judgements. This should continue: both legal and lay opinion place value on the use of discretion and the assessment of applicants as individuals.
Admissions policies and procedures should be informed and guided by current research and good practice. Where possible, universities and colleges using quantifiable measures should use tests and approaches that have already been shown to predict undergraduate success. Where existing tests are unsuited to a course’s entry requirements, institutions may develop alternatives, but should be able to demonstrate that their methods are relevant, reliable and valid. Where qualitative judgements are used, contextual criteria against which applicants are judged should accord with the Steering Group’s guidelines. Universities and colleges should monitor and evaluate the link between their admissions policies and undergraduate performance and retention, and review their policies to address any issues identified.
Principle 4: A fair admissions system should seek to minimise barriers for applicants Admissions processes should seek to minimise any barriers that are irrelevant to satisfying admissions requirements. This could include barriers arising from the means of assessment; the varying resources and support available to applicants; disability; and the type of an applicant’s qualifications (e.g. vocational or academic).
Principle 5: A fair admissions system should be professional in every respect and underpinned by appropriate institutional structures and processes An institution’s structures and processes should be designed to facilitate a highquality, efficient admissions system and a professional service to applicants. Structures and processes should feature: clear lines of responsibility across the institution to ensure consistency; allocation of resources appropriate to the task; and clear guidelines for the appointment, training and induction of all staff involved in admissions. The Steering Group suggests that institutions would find it simpler and cheaper to implement these guidelines if at least part of the admissions process were conducted by centrally located staff.
6. Wider recommendations 6.1 The Group welcomes the commitment by the Quality Assurance Agency to
review their code in light of its work. The Group also notes that the admissions process would benefit from a more consistent implementation of the code of practice by institutions.
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Admissions to Higher Education Fair Admissions to Higher Education: Recommendations for Good Practice
6.2 There are also some wider recommendations designed to produce a highquality admissions process and facilitate holistic assessment while minimising any increase in the overall cost to the HE sector. Many of these recommendations will involve a range of partners in addition to universities and colleges. They are set out in the following paragraphs.
Making applications 6.3 The Steering Group asks the Secretary of State for Education and Skills to set
up a high-level implementation group as soon as possible to achieve postqualification applications (PQA). The current system, relying on predicted grades, cannot be fair. It does not meet the Steering Group’s recommended principles of fair admissions, since it is based on data which are not reliable, it is not transparent for applicants or institutions, and may present barriers to applicants who lack self-confidence.
6.4 The Steering Group welcomes the decision by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) to extend its electronic services to all applicants for 2006 entry. This has the potential to produce a more integrated service for applicants and effect major improvements to the admissions process.
6.5 The Group notes that discrepancies between application systems for full-time and part-time study will make it difficult to implement the Schwartz principles for applications for part-time courses. It therefore recommends that UCAS, in partnership with Universities UK (UUK), the Standing Conference of Principals (SCOP), the Association of Colleges (AOC) and other relevant bodies, should seek views on the issues involved for part-time applicants and make recommendations to a centre of expertise on admissions proposed by the Steering Group (see below).
Assessing applicants 6.6 The Steering Group recommends that UCAS and other admissions services
review the design of application forms in partnership with higher education admissions staff, schools and colleges. This review should specifically consider the provision of summarised information to help admissions staff to assess contextual factors, such as educational context.
6.7 As well as providing greater flexibility and choice for learners, the Steering Group understands that the Tomlinson review of the 14-19 curriculum will provide opportunities to stretch the most able, and that it will allow for more fine-grained, contextual judgements about learners’ achievements. This will address the issue many admissions officers currently face, when courses are over-subscribed, in selecting from a growing pool of highly-qualified applicants. The Steering Group welcomes recognition of the need to move towards this greater differentiation as quickly as possible.
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