How do you solve a problem like admissions?

The dilemma of introducing a higher grade at A-level

University admissions will always be a tricky business to manage. Ensuring fairness amongst a large number of stakeholders, all aiming to get the best deal, is no easy feat. The main problem with admissions is that it is predominantly based on A-level results or equivalents which aim to reflect ability but also reflect consequences of fortune and privilege which the applicant cannot control. This is a problem inherent in the current system but the introduction of A* grades at A-level, part of government reforms to 14-19 education, is set to make the situation even worse.

The motivation behind its introduction is an acknowledgment that top Universities are finding it increasingly difficult to differentiate between applicants who all have 3 ‘A’ grades. The A* will enable Universities to identify the best candidates and therefore make it easier for them to make their offers.

However the situation is not that simple and it is important that the access implications of introducing the A* are fully realised. The Aldwych Group in particular, which represents students at the research-intensive Russell Group of Universities, has come out against the introduction of the A* because of its potential adverse affect on widening participation. The argument for our opposition is based on the reasonable assumption that the students who will benefit most from the A* introduction will more likely come from the independent sector and/or privileged backgrounds.

A student from a privileged background at an independent school, who has the advantage of small classroom sizes, the best teachers and private tutoring is already more equipped to achieve the top grades and is even more likely to be in that top percentile who will achieve the prized A*. Contrast that to the student from a local comprehensive who studies hard to achieve an A grade but hasn’t had the advantages just listed and may just miss out on the A*.

The answer to this initial problem is to suggest that the local comprehensive student be given a lower entry requirement than the independent school student. This levels their equality of opportunity and enables them both to attend a University that reflects their potential academic ability. However, that just creates an even bigger problem.

Suppose the independent school student achieves three A* grades and is not offered a University place due to heavy competition, while the local comprehensive student is accepted with three A’s. Is this system any more just? Has the first student again been penalised for factors for which they cannot be held responsible (e.g. their privileged background and financial status of their parents)?

The solutions for admissions to highly competitive institutions aren’t readily available but the introduction of the A* doesn’t seem to be the answer. The universities of the Russell Group will be forced to use it as a way of separating ‘extremely good’ candidates from ‘excellent candidates’ and inevitably it will be students from non-traditional and widening participation backgrounds who will be most disadvantaged. Of course, no single institution will opt out of using it for fear it might suffer in the competitive market of admissions. It is up to us to put pressure on the Russell Group to reject this bit of legislation across the board, for the sake of fairness and diversity.

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The Tory-DUP deal has left Scotland and Wales seething

It is quite something to threaten the Northern Irish peace process and set the various nations of the UK at loggerheads with merely one act.

Politics in the UK is rarely quite this crude, or this blatant. The deal agreed between the Conservatives and Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party has – finally – been delivered. But both the deal and much of the opposition to it come with barely even the pretence of principled behaviour.

The Conservatives are looking to shore up their parliamentary and broader political position after a nightmare month. The DUP deal gives the Tories some parliamentary security, and some political breathing space. It is not yet clear what they as a party will do with this – whether, for instance, there will be an attempt to seek new leadership for the party now that the immediate parliamentary position has been secured.

But while some stability has been achieved, the deal does not provide the Tories with much additional strength. Indeed, the DUP deal emphasises their weakness. To finalise the agreement the government has had to throw money at Northern Ireland and align with a deeply socially conservative political force. At a stroke, the last of what remained of the entire Cameron project – the Conservative’s rebuilt reputation as the better party for the economy and fiscal stability, and their development as a much more socially inclusive and liberal party – has been thrown overboard.

Read more: Theresa May's magic money tree is growing in Northern Ireland

For the DUP, the reasoning behind the deal is as obvious as it is for the Conservatives. The DUP has maximised the leverage that the parliamentary arithmetic gives it. As a socially conservative and unionist party, it has absolutely no wish to see Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street. But it has kept the Conservatives waiting, and used the current position to get as good a deal as possible. Why should we expect it to do anything else? Still, it is hardly seemly for votes to be bought quite so blatantly.

The politics behind much of the criticism of the deal has been equally obvious. Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones – representing not only the Labour party, but also a nation whose relative needs are at least as great as those of the six counties – abandoned his normally restrained tone to describe the deal as a "bung" for Northern Ireland. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was also sharply critical of the deal’s lack of concern for financial fairness across the UK. In doing so, she rather blithely ignored the fact that the Barnett Formula, out of which Scotland has long done rather well, never had much to do with fairness anyway. But we could hardly expect the Scottish National Party First Minister to do anything but criticise both the Conservatives and the current functioning of the UK.

Beyond the depressingly predictable short-term politics, the long-term consequences of the Tory-DUP deal are much less foreseeable. It is quite something to threaten the integrity of the Northern Irish peace process and set the various nations of the UK at loggerheads with merely one act. Perhaps everything will work out OK. But it is concerning that, for the current government, short-term political survival appears all-important, even at potential cost to the long-term stability and integrity of the state.

But one thing is clear. The political unity of the UK is breaking down. British party politics is in retreat, possibly even existential decay. This not to say that political parties as a whole are in decline. But the political ties that bind across the UK are.

The DUP deal comes after the second general election in a row where four different parties have come first in the four nations of the UK, something which had never happened before 2015. But perhaps even more significantly, the 2017 election was one where the campaigns across the four nations were perhaps less connected than ever before.

Of course, Northern Ireland’s party and electoral politics have long been largely separate from those on the mainland. But Ulster Unionist MPs long took the Tory whip at Westminster. Even after that practice ceased in the 1970s, some vestigial links between the parties remained, while there were also loose ties between the Social Democratic and Labour Party and Labour. But in 2017, both these Northern Irish parties had their last Commons representation eliminated.

In Scotland, 2017 saw the SNP lose some ground; the main unionist parties are, it seems, back in the game. But even to stage their partial comeback, the unionist parties had to fight – albeit with some success – on the SNP’s turf, focusing the general election campaign in Scotland heavily around the issue of a potential second independence referendum.

Even in Wales, Labour’s 26th successive general election victory was achieved in a very different way to the previous 25. The party campaigned almost exclusively as Welsh Labour. The main face and voice of the campaign was Carwyn Jones, with Jeremy Corbyn almost invisible in official campaign materials. Immediately post-election, Conservatives responded to their failure by calling for the creation of a clear Welsh Conservative leader.

Read more: Did Carwyn Jones win Wales for Labour  - or Jeremy Corbyn?

Yet these four increasingly separate political arenas still exist within one state. The UK was always an odd entity: what James Mitchell astutely termed a "state of unions", with the minority nations grafted on in distinct and even contradictory ways to the English core. The politics of the four nations are drifting apart, yet circumstances will still sometimes mean that they have to intersect. In the current instance, the parliamentary arithmetic means the Tories having to work with a party that celebrates a form of "Britishness" viewed increasingly with baffled incomprehension, if not outright revulsion, by the majority of Conservatives, even, on the British mainland. In turn, the Tories and other parties, as well as the news-media, are having to deal with sudden relevance of a party whose concerns and traditions they understand very little of.

Expect more of this incomprehension, not less, in the post-2017 general election world. 

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.

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