Rising numbers of universities are using data on students’ family life, parental education and school type as part of the admissions process, research shows.
More than one-in-four institutions admitted carrying out more background checks on applicants this year amid Government pressure to boost access to university. In many cases, it is believed the data is used to fast-track poor students into interviews or make lower-grade offers to disadvantaged candidates with “potential”.
The rise coincides with a decision to almost triple the cap on annual tuition fees in England to a maximum of £9,000 for students starting university this year. Ministers insist that institutions charging the most will be expected to go to the greatest lengths to ensure that poor pupils are not deterred from higher education.
For the first time this year, they are also required to set targets for the number of disadvantaged students being admitted – instead of merely logging applications. The disclosure is made in a survey of 78 universities by ACS International Schools, an independent school chain.
It is likely to create fresh concerns over so-called “social engineering” at the heart of the university admissions system. The findings came as the Office for Fair Access – set up by Labour to boost access to university – revealed that institutions are spending record sums attempting to attract and retain disadvantaged candidates.
In its annual report, the watchdog said that universities expected to spend more than £614m on “access measures” by 2015/16 – some 28 per cent of additional fee income. Sir Martin Harris, the outgoing chief regulator, said they were “asking institutions to set themselves challenging targets”, but insisted that claims of social engineering were “scaremongering”.
“Offa does not impose targets or quotas on institutions, nor do we interfere in admissions decisions which are, quite rightly, a matter for individual institutions,” he said. The ACS research – based on an annual survey of admissions officers in Britain – asked universities whether they were looking at more “contextual data” when considering applications in 2012.
This data often includes the performance of candidates’ previous school, whether they were educated in the state or independent sector, family income, parents’ education, the number of people from their local neighbourhood already going on to university and if they have been in care.
Some 26 per cent of tutors admitting making greater use of the data this year, while 72 per cent said it remained the same. The survey also suggested that admissions officers were finding it increasingly hard to pick out candidates based on exam results alone. Some 82 per cent backed the use of more detailed record of applicants’ achievements at school during the admissions process – in addition to raw grades – to make a more thorough evaluation of students’ abilities.
Most admissions tutors also considered that the International Baccalaureate – the Swiss-based qualification – acted as a better preparation for university than A-levels. They said IB students were more likely to be display good independent inquiry skills, cope with pressure and act creatively than those doing A-levels. (The Telegraph)