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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Boris Johnson isn't risking his political life over Heathrow

The anti-Heathrow campaigner was never a committed environmentalist. 

A government announcement on expanding London’s airports is expected today, and while opposition forces have been rallying against the expected outcome - a third runway at Heathrow - the decision could also be a divisive one for the ruling Conservative party. A long consultation period will allow these divisions to fester. 

Reports suggest that up to 60 Conservative MPs are against expansion at the Heathrow site. The Prime Minister’s own constituents are threatening legal action, and the former London mayoral candidate, Zac Goldsmith, has promised to step down as MP for Richmond rather than let the airport develop.

But what of Boris Johnson? The politician long synonymous with Heathrow opposition - including a threat to lie down “in front of those bulldozers” - is expected to call the decision a mistake. But for a man unafraid to dangle from a zipwire, he has become unusually reticent on the subject.

The reticence has partly been imposed upon him. In a letter to her cabinet ministers, Theresa May has granted them freedom from the usual rules of collective responsibility (under which cabinet ministers are required to support government positions). But she has also requested that they refrain from speaking out in the Commons, from “actively” campaigning against her position, and from calling “into question the decision making process itself”.  

Johnson is not about to start cheering for Heathrow. But unlike Goldsmith, he is no committed environmentalist - and he's certainly a committed politician.  

Boris’s objections to the expansion at Heathrow have all too often only extended as far as the lives of his London constituents. These local impacts are not to be belittled – in his role of mayor of London, he rightly pointed to the extreme health risks of increased noise and air pollution. And his charisma and profile have also boosted community campaigns around these issues. 

But when it comes to reducing emissions, Johnson is complacent. He may have come a long way since a 2013 Telegraph article in which he questioned whether global warming was real. Yet his plan to build an alternative “hub” airport in the Thames Estuary would have left the question of cutting UK aviation emissions worryingly un-resolved. This lack of curiosity is alarming considering his current job as foreign secretary. 

And there are reasons to be concerned. According to Cait Hewitt at the Aviation Environment Federation, the UK fails to meet its targets for CO2 reduction. And the recent UN deal on aviation emission mitigation doesn’t even meet the commitments of the UK’s own Climate Change Act, let alone the more stringent demands of the Paris Agreement. “Deciding that we’re going to do something that we know is going to make a problem worse, before we’ve got an answer, is the wrong move”, said Hewitt.

There is a local environmental argument too. Donnachadh McCarthy, a spokesperson from the activist group “Rising Up”, says the pollution could affect Londoners' health: "With 70 per cent of flights taken just by 15 per cent of the UK's population... this is just not acceptable in a civilised democracy.”

The way Johnson tells it, his reason for staying in government is a pragmatic one. “I think I'd be better off staying in parliament to fight the case, frankly," he told LBC Radio in 2015. And he's right that, whatever the government’s position, the new “national policy statement” to authorise the project will likely face a year-long public consultation before a parliamentary vote in late 2017 or early 2018. Even then the application will still face a lengthy planning policy stage and possible judicial review. 

But if the foreign secretary does fight this quietly, in the back rooms of power, it is not just a loss to his constituents. It means the wider inconsistencies of his position can be brushed aside - rather than exposed and explored, and safely brought down to ground. 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.