Admissions bias in higher education must be redressed

The admission criteria for Scotland’s top four universities – Edinburgh, St Andrews, Glasgow and Aberdeen – have been criticised by the new Fair Access Commissioner as unfair and elitist, favouring those from wealthier and more advantaged backgrounds (namely private school students) in their selection process. Lowering entry requirements seems to be the best solution to the unresolved bias in university admissions.

It is indisputable that elitism exists in the more competitive UK universities, although it is not always intentional. After all, it is understandable that students from wealthier backgrounds and private schools often have greater access to educational resources and training facilities, as well as necessary family support for high achievement in academia, thus making acceptance into top universities more likely. In fact, private school education is meant to be superior – all you have to do is look at its cost. This, coupled with the high admission standards of world class universities, makes it easier for those from less wealthy families to fall behind.

The statistics highlight this imbalance in access to higher education. A report recently published by Sutton Trust revealed that Scottish teenagers in wealthier areas are four times more likely to go straight to universities than those in more disadvantaged backgrounds, a UK record in itself. The Telegraph published research showing that 30.6 per cent of pupils from private schools achieved three As at A-level, three times the average for state school students.

It is not a difference in intellectual ability that produces such results. There are a number of factors which may contribute to underperformance in academia.

Lowering entry requirements to universities to level the playing field does seem to be the most viable solution for current action: it acknowledges that underperformance can be attributed to various social factors, giving those hindered by socio-economic circumstances a fighting chance against wealthier students. However, this course of action seems to have a lot of misplaced opposition.

Many favour a school-centred approach to widening participation in universities. School and college leaders claim that the aim should be to encourage all students to succeed, whether that be in an apprenticeship or higher education, implying that lack of ambition or motivation is restricting disadvantaged students. It is also said that quality of schooling should be improved instead of ‘dumbing down’ higher education, suggesting that those with a disadvantaged background should just wait for educational reform. I also see the appeal of waiting for equality in income and education to make their way round, but this will be unfruitful for the near future.

Another argument often put forward is that a system of meritocracy is incompatible with lowering entry standards, as it forces universities to discriminate in favour of the under-represented. Accepting those with lower academic achievements runs the risk of diluting a student population of a certain standard, threatening reputation and competitiveness. Yet evidence has shown the contrary is true: students from disadvantaged backgrounds of course have the potential to outperform those from superior schools, even when offered lower entry requirements. If anything, this could make entry more competitive if students from varying backgrounds are given greater consideration, consequently boosting overall student performance while encouraging a more diverse student population.

Ultimately, the implicit bias of higher education hinders social mobility and propagates elitism. While there has been great progress towards addressing these disparities, lowering entry requirements in certain circumstances would promote equal opportunities for access to a higher education regardless of educational background.

Image Credit: GlasgowUni

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