Universities accused of socially engineering intakes

A string of leading universities have been plunged into a row over claims that they are socially engineering their intake.

Edinburgh, Leeds, Bristol and Birmingham universities have drawn up points systems which effectively boost the exam grades of children from poorer homes, to give them a better chance of winning a place.

As a consequence, middle class children face losing out to children with lower grades.

The Government has repeatedly urged universities to do more to attract a wider mix of students. Ministers have backed the use of information about applicants’ backgrounds - referred to as “contextual data” - without specifying how it should be used.

Many institutions say they consider such data when choosing between applicants on a case-by-case basis.

However, systems which allocate a numerical score to each applicant based in part on their social background - revealed for the first time today - will be regarded as highly controversial.

Examples seen by The Sunday Telegraph include:

- At Edinburgh, all undergraduate applications have been given a numerical score for the last two years. The points awarded for attending a very low-performing school boost the score of a pupil with three Bs beyond that of one with three A*s.

- In Leeds, students applying to read medicine could be given so many points for coming from a low-income area and a poor school that three B grades would effectively become three A*s.

- Bristol is implementing a points system across its courses where pupils from poor schools “will be given an automatic weighting to their total academic score”, while Birmingham has drawn up a similar policy but is not yet using it.

Critics last night said the points systems, revealed under the Freedom of Information Act, amounted to “generic discrimination” against middle-class families, and warned that tutors were being stripped of the discretion to select those students they think will benefit most from their course.

At Edinburgh, all applications are now scored. In science and engineering, for instance, candidates get 16 points for each A* or A grade at A-level, while a string of A* GCSEs is worth eight points.

Added to this, applicants who attended the lowest performing schools get an additional 18 points.

A sixth former scoring maximum “contextual data” points, but with three B grades, could effectively have their total boosted beyond another candidate with three A*s.

At Leeds, candidates to read medicine - a subject which receives 16 applications for every place - have been sifted in recent years using a system which combines points for exam performance and achievements such as Duke of Edinburgh awards with extra points based on social factors.

Up to six points are available for predicted or actual A-level grades, plus up to eight points for GCSE results.

In addition, a candidate can obtain up to four points for attending a poorly-performing school, judged by its GCSE results; two points for coming from a postcode where few young people go to university; and two points if they have spent time in care - making a maximum of eight “contextual” points.

The scores are used to decide which candidates to interview. Successful candidates are typically offered a place which is conditional on achieving three A grades at A-level. Applicants, their families and their schools were not told that information about their social background would be used in this way.

A Leeds spokesman said the system had been used for three years, but was suspended in 2012 and would not be used next year. The university could not say why.

Some 40 per cent of courses at Bristol used a scoring system which took into account contextual data this year, and all applicants will be scored by the start of the 2012/13 admission round. The university would not say how the points are allocated.

Birmingham last year granted admission tutors permission to allocate undergraduate places using a scoring system which includes points for contextual data, if certain courses are oversubscribed in future years.

The system allocates up to 11 points for background factors including the uptake of free school meals at the pupil’s school, which is an indicator of poverty.

The university said the points given for exam performance would depend on the course. It said none of its departments were currently using the points system to allocate places.

Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, suggested in May that universities should take “into account the impact of background in assessing university applications” to create a “fair race” for degree places.

Professor Les Ebdon, the new director of the Government’s Office for Fair Access, has warned that he will fine universities that do not to enough to attract a better social mix.

However, senior figures in higher education have cast doubt on the fairness of using the data. Mary Curnock Cook, the chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) has said that she had “real concerns about whether the contextual data is sophisticated enough” to be reliable.

Sir David Bell, the vice-chancellor of Reading University, and the former permanent secretary at the Department for Education, has warned that giving places to working-class students with lower A-level grades than their middle-class counterparts was “patronising” and could be seen as a “back door route in”.

Scoring systems which attribute a specific weight to contextual data could also be seen as “positive discrimination” and open universities up to legal challenge, according to lawyers.

Tim Hands, the headmaster of Magdalen College School, Oxford, and chair of the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference universities committee, said admissions which scored contextual data could be “bordering on generic discrimination”.

“The potentially sinister thing about this is that institutions are not being transparent about scoring systems,” he said.

“When someone as well placed as the chief executive of UCAS warns that the current contextual data may not be robust, universities who use it risk losing their reputation for academic scrupulousness.”

"Students deserve transparency and accuracy not hasty measures which risk appearing subservient demonstrations of political correctness."

Mark Steed, the principal at Berkhamsted School, an independent in Hertfordshire, said: “I don’t have a problem with a weighting system. The key thing that is missing is transparency.

“The issue is not choosing between two candidates with top A-levels, one from a tough background and one with the advantages of a private education, it is three A* pupils who are not getting places and places going to people with three Bs.”

Professor Alan Smithers, the director of education and employment research at Buckingham University, said: “This kind of system is grossly unfair and it is not in the best interest of the university. They should be selecting on the basis of the candidate’s capacity to benefit from the course and the best indicator of that is what students achieve at school.

“The achievement of some children can be affected by factors outside their control but that should be dealt with on an individual basis, not by giving a point score for disadvantage. An admission tutor should make decisions based on all the available information; if a student gets and A and two Bs because they have spent time in hospital or because they have been affected by time in care for instance. But blanket systems, such as scoring, should not apply.”

But Rebecca Gaukroger, the head of admissions at Edinburgh, said: “We don’t accept that the scoring of academic grades or contextual data undermines the holistic assessment of applications.

"A score on its own is never enough to either secure or prevent an offer from Edinburgh being made, and all aspects of the UCAS application will be considered before we reach a decision on an application.

"We believe the use of a scoring system that is flexible enough to take account of the wide variety of educational and life experiences of our applicants is an important part of our commitment to fair admissions.

“Our use of contextual data alongside other information contained within the UCAS application has enabled us to identify those students who best demonstrate the academic ability, resilience and commitment to succeed at Edinburgh.”

She also pointed out that since contextual data had been used, the university had seen improvements in the performance and retention of students.

"This reinforces our firm belief that our use of contextual data alongside other information in the UCAS application has enabled us to identify those students who best demonstrate the academic ability, resilience and commitment to succeed at Edinburgh," she added.

A spokesman for Birmingham University said: “We do not currently score applications. Using contextual data is something we have considered and we have the outline of a possible system, which we would only use after extensive verification of its fitness for purpose.”

Angela Milln, Bristol University director of student recruitment, access and admissions, said: 'We are considered in our use of contextual data and only include it within a selection process where we have strong and robust research evidence to indicate that the approach is appropriate.”

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