Ad­mis­sions staff told to fo­cus on du­ra­tion of de­pri­va­tion

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - anna.mckie@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

Uni­ver­si­ties should con­sider the length of time a stu­dent has faced dis­ad­van­tage dur­ing their up­bring­ing when as­sess­ing their ap­pli­ca­tions, ac­cord­ing to re­searchers.

Aca­demics at Durham Univer­sity said that there was a large gap in at­tain­ment be­tween school-leavers who had suf­fered from de­pri­va­tion for long pe­ri­ods and those who had only been af­fected tem­po­rar­ily – po­ten­tially at the point at which they sub­mit their ap­pli­ca­tion.

The five re­searchers – Stephen Go­rard, Vikki Bo­liver, Na­dia Sid­diqui, Beng Huat See and Re­becca Mor­ris – based their anal­y­sis on an as­sess­ment of 28 fac­tors used to con­sider the ap­pli­ca­tions of stu­dents from dis­ad­van­taged back­grounds, iden­ti­fied from 120,000 ex­ist­ing re­search re­ports.

Many of these are of­ten adopted by uni­ver­si­ties who make use of “con­tex­tu­alised” ad­mis­sions be­cause the data are read­ily avail­able, not be­cause they are the most ro­bust mea­sures that could be used, the Durham study says.

One of the most com­monly used in­di­ca­tors, the neigh­bour­hood char­ac­ter­is­tics of where an ap­pli­cant lives, was not par­tic­u­larly use­ful, the re­searchers con­cluded, since many dis­ad­van­taged pupils live in com­par­a­tively af­flu­ent ar­eas.

There are also prob­lems with the use of school type as a fac­tor, as it is not clear whether it is the most re­cent school or the school that a pupil at­tended for long­est that is most rel­e­vant, the re­searchers say. They high­light po­ten­tial gam­ing of the sys­tem – for ex­am­ple, when pri­vate school stu­dents trans­fer to state- funded sixth forms.

“In­di­vid­ual, rather than modal, char­ac­ter­is­tics are much more ac­cu­rate,” Pro­fes­sor Go­rard told Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion.

Some in­di­vid­ual char­ac­ter­is­tics can have draw­backs too, though, the re­searchers say. Whether some­one is an im­mi­grant is con­sid­ered by some uni­ver­si­ties, but this might in­clude an English-speak­ing stu­dent from a pro­fes­sional fam­ily mov­ing from the US to the UK, they say.

Like­wise, stu­dents who have English as a sec­ond lan­guage may strug­gle on ar­rival in the UK but, if they have been in the school sys­tem for an ex­tended pe­riod, typ­i­cally out­per­form their peers in ex­ams.

The re­searchers ar­gue that uni­ver­si­ties should take into ac­count other in­di­ca­tors, such as for how many years they have been el­i­gi­ble for free school meals and whether they care for oth­ers.

Dr Go­rard said that the real prob­lem with widen­ing ac­cess in the UK was that, by the time stu­dents reach the stage of ap­ply­ing to univer­sity, many pupils have fallen too far be­hind dur­ing their school­ing to be able to en­ter higher ed­u­ca­tion.

“Con­tex­tu­alised ad­mis­sions can’t fix this, but they can make a huge dif­fer­ence. The prob­lem is that they are not fully work­ing as they are now,” he said.

The re­search, funded by the Eco­nomic and So­cial Re­search Coun­cil, was due to be pre­sented at an event in Durham ti­tled Let’s Make Ed­u­ca­tion Fairer on 10 Novem­ber, part of the ESRC’s an­nual Fes­ti­val of So­cial Sci­ence.

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