In Sunday’s Telegraph, David Willetts, the Minister responsible for universities, suggested that universities aren’t doing enough to accept bright pupils from poorer backgrounds. He contests that many such pupils’ educational backgrounds prevent them from meeting the demanding offers set by the top universities and recommends offering them reserved places at lower grades than required by their better-off counterparts to correct this discrepancy between potential and places. Yet this solution seeks to address a discrepancy that does not exist. Willetts assumes that universities do not already consider an applicant’s potential when offering her a place when, in fact, they do.
The vast majority of universities offer students places based on three pieces of evidence: AS grades, personal statements and teacher references. Whilst the first is admittedly concerned with a candidate’s attainment, the others offer scope for the display of her potential. Personal statements are used to demonstrate her extra-curricular successes, motivations and interests, whilst teacher references highlight the student’s pace of development and attitude to her work. A standard UCAS form contains a multitude of measures of potential, all of which are considered before a university makes an individual offer.
Further means of assessing potential are utilised by Oxbridge and the Russell Group universities, presumably the targets of such a quota (no-one hears about London Metropolitan’s failures to further social mobility). Not only do they require the completion of entrance exams with a more IQ-test feel than the standard A level for some courses (such as the LNAT and BMAT), they also tend to invite applicants to interview for places. These give admissions tutors an opportunity to examine how candidates think, by subjecting them to a line of questioning designed to reveal thought processes. Were a candidate with mediocre AS levels to truly dazzle at interview, the university would have few qualms offering her a place, complete with realistic grade-requirement suitable to her educational background. Indeed, I’ve met people to whom exactly this has happened.
Universities already take the applicants whom possess the most potential. They have both the means to identify them and the incentive to reduce offers in line with personal circumstances; allowing the best candidates in can only raise the university’s position in the league tables. Universities do not need government instruction to act in their own best interest, and recruit the best applicants thereby.