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.

David Cameron addresses pupils at an assembly during a visit to Corby Technical School on September 2, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Can Cameron maintain his refugee stance as he comes under attack from all sides?

Tory MPs, the Sun, Labour and a growing section of the public are calling on the PM to end his refusal to take "more and more". 

The disparity between the traumatic images of drowned Syrian children and David Cameron's compassionless response ("I don't think there is an answer that can be achieved simply by taking more and more refugees") has triggered a political backlash. A petition calling for greater action (the UK has to date accepted just 216 refugees) has passed the 100,000 threshold required for the government to consider a debate after tens of thousands signed this morning. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has tweeted: "This is not an immigration issue, it's a humanitarian one, and the human response must be to help. If we don't, what does that make us?" Tory MPs such as Nicola Blackwood, David Burrowes, Jeremy Lefroy and Johnny Mercer have similarly appealed to Cameron to reverse his stance.

Today's Sun declares that the UK has "a proud record of taking in desperate people and we should not flinch from it now if it is beyond doubt that they have fled for their lives." Meanwhile, the Washington Post has published a derisive piece headlined "Britain takes in so few refugees from Syria they would fit on a subway train". Labour has called on Cameron to convene a meeting of Cobra to discuss the crisis and to request an emergency EU summit. Yvette Cooper, who led the way with a speech on Monday outlining how the UK could accept 10,000 refugees, is organising a meeting of councils, charities and faith groups to discuss Britain's response. Public opinion, which can turn remarkably quickly in response to harrowing images, is likely to have grown more sympathetic to the Syrians' plight. Indeed, a survey in March found that those who supported accepting refugees fleeing persecution outnumbered opponents by 47-24 per cent. 

The political question is whether this cumulative pressure will force Cameron to change his stance. He may not agree to match Cooper's demand of 10,000 (though Germany is poised to accept 800,000) but an increasing number at Westminster believe that he cannot remain impassive. Surely Cameron, who will not stand for election again, will not want this stain on his premiership? The UK's obstinacy is further antagonising Angela Merkel on whom his hopes of a successful EU renegotiation rest. If nothing else, Cameron should remember one of the laws of politics: the earlier a climbdown, the less painful it is. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.