Elite universities should select students via “lottery”, says report

The Higher Education Policy Institute believes that randomised admissions are fairer and could help boost social mobility.

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A think tank has recommended that Britain’s top universities should offer places to students who have achieved their required A-Level grades at random. A new report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) has suggested that an admissions “lottery”, from which high-achieving students are selected regardless of their social or ethnic background, could help to diversify intakes.

The report accused highly selective institutions, such as Oxford and Cambridge, of making “glacially slow” progress when it came to widening participation rates for ethnic minorities and people from poorer areas.

Research by the Office for Students (Ofs), the universities regulator, found that in 2017-18 universities recruited twice as many students from the most advantaged backgrounds compared with the least advantaged; and this rose to around five times as many among the most selective institutions. The OfS wants universities to close this gap by 2037. Hepi’s report, however, estimated that under the current circumstances, it would take 96 years to achieve this.

Oxford and Cambridge generally require three A* grades or similar at A-Level to gain a place. However before they even get a conditional offer, applicants have to take an entrance exam and undergo an interview. Other top universities, such as Durham or Warwick, also make competitive grade requirements. Personal statements and teacher references are often used to allocate places when they are oversubscribed.

In both instances, social mobility campaigners believe students from wealthier backgrounds have an advantage in preparing for exams and interviews, authoring personal statements and gaining work experience, because they tend to attend private schools with superior resources and facilities.

Dr Lewis Paton, of the department of health sciences at the University of York, has conducted research into the relationship between social background and the likelihood of admissions to medical schools. He said that Hepi’s suggestion of an undergraduate intake lottery “may help to widen access” by “removing some of the potential sources of unconscious bias, such as interviews”. But Paton pointed out that there is also “well established evidence” that A-Level performance is “at least partly dependent on the secondary school” that someone attends.

As such, he said universities should also look to “contextualise” their conditional offers. He explained: “Students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds who don’t achieve the very top grades at A-Level perform just as well at university [in terms of their degree classification] as those who did from the most advantaged backgrounds. Therefore a lottery system which selects only from those who achieved top grades would struggle to widen access to those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. Perhaps more universities, then, should think about making offers that take where someone has gone to school into account. A grade offer could be lowered, for example, if someone had gone to a poorer performing secondary school.”

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Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman