I hate to admit it, but I actually agree with something Peter Mandelson has said. He is suggesting that we should use “contextual data” when evaluating students’s university applications. There is quite a lot of what he is proposing that I disagree with, but I agree that we need to make universities more inclusive and that the way to do it is to consider information about an applicant’s background and circumstances.
It’s almost certainly the case that there are academically capable people from all backgrounds and from all walks of life. It’s also probably true that using school leaving grades as the prime factor in determining whether to accept a student or not will mean some potentially very capable people will miss out on university places. I also believe that it is in everyone’s interest to try and get the “best” students into universities. By this I mean the ones most likely to excel at their chosen subject irrespective of what kind of grades they have achieved at school.
The difficult thing is working out how to identify those potentially good students who have been disadvantaged in some way and who – consequently – don’t necessarily satisfy a simple grade requirement. Some kind of analysis of contextual data seems like a reasonable thing to consider. My personal view would be that determining how well they have done relative to their peers would be a decent place to start. It seems reasonable to assume that the top students in schools who traditionally do not have many students who satisfy university entry requirements, may well have more potential than those who do satisfy the entry requirements but who are not the top students – or even near the top – in their school.
Whatever method is tried, what I do feel strongly is that we have to start trying something. At the moment we don’t have much data to work with, so don’t really know what works and what doesn’t. If we make some educated guesses as to which students from disadvantaged backgrounds may have the potential to do well at university, in a few years time we will be able to analyse how well these students have actually done and adapt the process accordingly.
Interestingly, having started writing this, I have found an article by Zoe Williams suggesting that Peter Mandelson’s comments are typical new labour spin. A “diversionary row between universities and the government”. If there is a big row about universities now, the review into students fees will not be complete before the election and the opposition will have nothing concrete to complain about. Although I do agree with what Peter Mandelson has said about inclusion, I suspect that his real reason for saying this is more along the lines of what Zoe Williams is suggesting than because he truly cares about universities being inclusive.