Is the university admissions system fair?

This article also appears in the July 2012 edition of ESRC Society Now magazine.

Reforming the university application system gets a lot of attention from politicians. Initiatives such as the Office of Fair Access and suggestions that more use is made of information about young people’s family backgrounds as part of the selection process both hint at the idea that the process is fundamentally unfair and in need of changes.

Certainly, a look at the socioeconomic gap in university attendance reveals young people with higher household incomes are much more likely to go to university. New research using the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England shows that teenagers in the top fifth of the income distribution are 2.7 times more likely to attend university than those in the bottom fifth.

However, a closer look reveals problems with this analysis. If, like universities, we can look just at individuals who have applied to university, the observed gap in those who get a place shrinks significantly. Among teenagers who apply, those in the top fifth of the income distribution are only 1.2 times more likely to get a place than their peers from the bottom fifth. Importantly, if we compare applicants with similar exam results from as early as age 11 this difference becomes so small it is no long clear that it exists at all.

This is not to deny that the socioeconomic gap in university attendance does exist, but to suggest it needs to be tackled a different way. The evidence shows the gap develops earlier. As such, policies like those in the opening paragraph can only hope to work on an already small group. They are not the key to making big improvements.

Although harder to implement, bigger changes can only come from policies which work at an earlier age. Much of the observed gap in university attendance is explained by earlier exam results, for example GCSEs. This partly reflects teenagers from richer families doing better in these earlier tests. As such, an important part of the process has to be ensuring that young people from poorer backgrounds can reach their potential in such exams.

Having said that changes to the admissions process are not the key, there are, however, a couple of exceptions to this. Changes to the admissions procedures, to shift young people’s perceptions of how they’ll be treated by universities, might make pupils from poorer backgrounds more confident of a fair hearing. This might in itself help close the applications gap, and hopefully, in turn, the participation gap.

Likewise, moving to a post-results application system may also have benefits. Research by the Department of Business Innovation and Skills has shown that teenagers from worse-off families are more likely to have their A-levels grades poorly predicted. When those predicted grades play such an important part of the application process how can they then expect a fair hearing from universities? Getting lower predicted grades than they ultimately achieve may even put people off applying to university in the first place.

While there is clearly a gap between the richest and poorest families in university attendance, we must look earlier in young people’s lives to understand it fully. Some changes to the admissions process could make a difference. However, to make bigger strides towards levelling the playing field, and thereby improving one important aspect of social mobility, young people from poorer background must achieve their potential throughout their school career. It is too late to try and tackle it during the university admissions process alone.

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