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Should universities be looking at my background as well as my results?

2nd July 2012

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We all remember the long-drawn out process of applying to university. Getting the personal statement just right, selecting your choices and pointlessly ticking boxes about family circumstances or previous education. However how would you feel if this information wasn't the only thing used to determine your place at university? With competition stronger than ever, this is increasingly becoming a reality.
UCAS application Institutions claim that A-level results simply aren’t enough to separate one applicant from another. They are therefore making use of ‘contextual data’ which is collected through UCAS. This includes the performance of a pupil’s previous school, whether they were in state or private education, their parents’ education and the number of people from their local area already going to university. 

Now I went to an above-average state secondary school, live in a pretty middle-class area and both my parents went to university. Would this additional data put me at a disadvantage even if I got the grades? 
A new survey suggests that this may be the case. 26% of tutors admitted that they made greater use of the data this year, as the rise in tuition fees is putting off pupils from poorer backgrounds.

Acknowledging this problem, OFFA (Office for Fair Access) has set targets to universities instructing them to accept a certain number of disadvantaged students per year. There is obviously nothing wrong with this policy, as the rich/poor gap should not be allowed to widen any further. However fast-tracking a poorer student because of their situation also undermines the notion of fair play and may affect university standards in the long run.

Fast-tracking will mean that some students will be less academic than others. Higher education is all about the quality of learning, yet OFFA’s targets suggest that the government are more concerned with figures than with maintaining levels of education. Of course they don’t want to deter poorer pupils from university, but their methods suggest that too much emphasis is being placed on the people rather than the course.

Leeds University says that disadvantaged applicants are ‘flagged’ so that lower grades may be offered. In order to study law you need AAA, but this can sometimes be lowered to ABB once the contextual data is taken into account. If a high proportion of ABB students are admitted, standards will undoubtedly deteriorate in a way unlikely to happen with the desired AAA class. 

Freshers want to start university knowing that everyone has been judged fairly. However highlighting certain data and disregarding the rest will ultimately result in an unfair system. If a disadvantaged student is vying for a place against a private-educated pupil with the same A-Level results, the latter should not be rejected purely because of their background. In the same way, students in private schools should not be picked simply because they are from a well-established institution. Instead admissions tutors need something else on the application so that they can justly allocate over 100,000 students who apply for university every year.

Looking at contextual data is not the answer because it is unfair and cannot take everyone’s situation into account. If poor students are being deterred from university, then maybe the government should have thought about that before raising the fees. Now the hard work needs to begin in schools so that all applicants can illustrate their overall academic achievements and apply for university on an equal footing.  

Do you agree? Read the other side of the argument here

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