Opinion | The current university admissions system is failing students

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By Rachel Carr, Second Year, History

Recent headlines have hinted at ‘secret university waiting lists’ amid growing concerns with grade inflation. If true, this would merely be the most recent in a series of scandals surrounding the treatment of students in higher education during this pandemic.

But even if it’s not, it’s time to re-evaluate the fairness of the university admissions system, and put students’ interests at the centre of the decision-making process.

Top universities are accused of increasing their undergraduate recruitment by reaching out to a secret list of students individually and assuring them a place regardless of their grades, so long as places remain.

This means that prospective students aren’t as likely to accept an offer from a less popular institution, leaving themselves precariously placed if that university later decides there is no longer a place available for them – all while ensuring the university is protected from a decline in student numbers (and, of course, tuition fees).

The University of Cambridge has even introduced an over-subscription clause to allow it to withdraw offers in the event that too many candidates qualify. At best, universities are hedging their bets. At worst, they are exploiting an increasingly anxious group of students.

We only need to cast our minds back half a year to the A Level results debacle, when the government was vilified for its algorithm moderation process and forced into a U-turn. Guaranteeing places to the state-school students whose generated grades fell short of their conditions for admission would have been a reasonable university response.

The pandemic has exacerbated the pre-existing issues of barriers to access to higher education

That so many universities chose not to shows their unpreparedness for a time when reliance on their current grade-dependent admissions system would inevitably backfire.

The pandemic has exacerbated the pre-existing issues of barriers to access to higher education that have been discussed for years. The University of Bristol has been making undeniable progress on this front, as can be seen by the fact that state school intake rose from 64.7% in 2016 to 71.3% in 2021.

This seems a quietly positive statistic, until you consider how many years it would take to reach the national average of 90.2%.

We need these debacles to lead to a revolutionised admissions system

I would argue against pessimism in light of the sluggish and yet determined progress of the last few years. But, it’s fair to expect any real change to come from grassroots groups and student organisations.

Recently, a motion proposed by James Fishwick (Chair of the University of Bristol Widening Participation Network) to cap private school admissions to reflect the national average of private school students was rejected by Student’s Union members.

However, the fact that this kind of positive discrimination is being discussed within the university indicates progress, as does the existence of the Network and groups like the 93% Club which try to redress the issue of access to university, something which is clearly a growing concern amongst Bristol students.

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Universities might view ‘secret waiting lists’ as making sense in a self-serving capacity:  they offer the opportunity to protect their own interests. But it’s an unethical and shady practice, and it definitely doesn’t prioritise students.

We need these debacles to lead to a revolutionised admissions system, where a larger emphasis on personal statements, interviews, submitted work, and access arrangements would mean admissions are based on more individual talent, rather than on the luck of superior teaching that’s implicit in the current grading system.

The pandemic has already altered the running of many institutions and businesses. It may well catalyse the modernisation of university admissions too.

Featured Image: Epigram / Imogen Horton


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