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Just how many universities are making “adjusted offers”?
New figures reveal the extent universities are looking into applicants' backgrounds before making offers.
This year, 260 out of 300 UK institutions signed up to receive "contextual data" from UCAS, which gives tutors background information on candidates.
This information includes performance rankings for the schools attended, together with the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals, the affluence levels of the area where they live, whether the pupils have been in care, and the proportion of pupils' peers who have gone on to university.
Three-quarters of the leading Russell Group of universities, which includes such high-ranking establishments as Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College, King's College London, Cardiff University and the University of Edinburgh have either used that data already to decide on admissions, or are piloting the use of that data.
Recent research reveals that around 30% of all universities in the UK currently refer to this kind of information when it comes to making "adjusted offers" to certain applicant groups on the basis of their background.
Sir David Bell, Permanent Secretary of the Department for Education until the beginning of 2012, and now Vice-Chancellor of Reading University, describes this practice as "patronising" and a "back door route" into university.
Although believing in widening access to universities, Sir David warns: “Giving differentiated offers, certainly when you have competition for places, is a bad move. I just think it is the wrong policy if you compromise on standards.”
“We should all be interested in ensuring that all students who have the ability come to university, and perhaps to the top universities where the entry standards are higher.
"But it is no good to the higher education sector or the school education sector if we compromise on entry standards when the university has made a judgement about a particular course of study.”
Although a number of university Vice-Chancellors are still resisting pressure to make "adjusted offers", to date Sir David is the only one to have actually gone on record to criticise the practice.
Of course, there are alternatives to a university education, however a place may come to be offered.
An increasingly-popular choice is an apprenticeship, giving the candidate the opportunity to study the theory behind their chosen career in the classroom, while at the same time being paid to put that theory into practice in the workplace.
Applicants are offered an apprenticeship based on their educational and personal merits alone, with no “adjustments” whatsoever.