Monday, June 01, 2009

On Durham’s Admissions Procedures

So begins the Sunday Times’ article, “Top Schools Boycott ‘bias’ Durham”:

“SOME of the country’s most academic schools are discouraging pupils from applying to popular courses at Durham University in protest at what they see as an admissions system ‘fixed’ against them”

I attended (“did time at”) Marlborough College, one of these “top schools” (it was, I can’t deny I got an excellent education from some of the best teachers in Britain), and at no point was I ever discouraged from applying to Durham. In fact, there was a running joke that Durham took the “Oxbridge Rejects” (i.e. anyone from private school who applied to Oxford or Cambridge but was rejected for whatever reason – this includes myself). Ok, so I started at Durham University in 2001, but still.

With this in mind, what’s all the fuss actually about? Apparently Durham University uses a mathematical formula to decide who gets admitted to the university, favouring those students who are from poorer or less-privileged backgrounds:

“because candidates from low-scoring schools have outstripped their peers, they deserve more credit than pupils who score a string of A* grades at a school where most pupils do so.”

I seem a certain amount of merit in this position, but why should my GCSEs be worth less? Did I not do the work for them? Did the current crop of students being turned away not do the work?

Durham turns away approximately 3,500 applicants with or expected to receive 3 A’s at A-Level. Apart from a small selection of students who give the impression of being as dumb as posts (making determinations on this somewhat difficult), I would say that an easy majority of my students this year were of upper-middle class backgrounds, or at least from wealthy families and from good schools (whether private or otherwise). I therefore wonder just how much of an issue this really is: The Times article had only one example of a student rejected from Oxford, Edinburgh, York and King’s College London. He’s now going to study in the US (lucky him, I would have loved to have been able to study there).

As Mike Baker soberly wrote in The Guardian:

“The fears over positive discrimination are probably overdone. No university wants to admit students who lack the ability to complete their course. No one is suggesting tariffs or quotas. But universities should treat each applicant as an individual, taking account of prior achievements, circumstances and potential. And that means A-level grades alone are not everything.”

I got this in an email today:

“In some subjects Durham is now as competitive as Oxbridge for entry. In many subjects AAA is the minimum entry qualification. Thus, inevitably, many very strong candidates will be disappointed. Last year we rejected 3,500 students predicted to have at least AAA at A level.”

I know it’s common for people to comment on how “things were harder in my day”, but I think this is the case. My first year tutees this year – with but a couple of exceptions – were by and large as intellectually curious as bricks. Ok, that’s perhaps a bit of a harsh representation, but most of them exhibited little ability to think outside of the box, an over-dependence on spoon-feeding (also evident in my 2nd year tutees, who were taking a 1st year module), and a reluctance to engage in class discussion. Sometimes it was next to impossible to get my students to join the discussions.

This makes the Vice-Chancellor’s response to the Sunday Times article all the more surprising:

“personal statement, reference, study skills, motivation for the degree, independence of thought, achievements in non-academic activities and how applicants perform in relation to other leading students in their school” [emphasis mine]

With almost every student achieving 3 A’s at A-Level, universities must rely on other criteria to make decisions. I believe I was admitted on the strength of my interview with one of my future lecturers. Personal statements should be considered, but then there is the problem of them also becoming formulaic and over-flowing with misplaced praise. University-specific exams? Well, I remember reading somewhere that Oxford and Cambridge were considering bringing them back (are they already in place?), but I can’t imagine Durham bringing them in anytime soon.

As a final comment about grades: I received one B and three C’s at A-Level (one was for General Studies, so I guess it doesn’t count), yet I’ve completed a BA from Durham (receiving a 2:1), a Masters degree from Cardiff, and am now in my third year of PhD back in Durham (tutoring on the side). My point is, in complete agreement with Mr. Baker, grades aren’t everything and they don’t indicate what the student might be able to accomplish under the right conditions. For that reason, it is dismaying that Cambridge University now admits to no longer reading personal statements when considering applicants – it is on the personal statement that students like myself, who maybe don’t have a stellar academic history pre-university, can have the chance to shine or catch an admittance officer’s eye.

There is no easy solution to this problem. Having a tantrum about it won’t help, and neither will running to the papers crying foul. Maybe your kid just didn’t stand out – it’s a nigh-on impossible thing for a parent to admit that their child isn’t, actually, particularly special (I know my parents are somewhat blinded to my own academic short-comings).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oxford now has university-specific entrance tests in Classics, Fine Art, History, Mathematics, Modern Languages, Oriental Studies, Physics and some joint degrees including Philosophy. Some are taken during the interview period, but others are taken beforehand and used for shortlisting.

There are also shared-university tests for Economics and Management, Law, Medicine, and PPE.