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Admission to higher education

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Important issues in admissions policy

That applicants should be selected according to fair and reliable criteria is one of the principles of the UK's Schwartz Report, and one of the main concerns of policymakers and universities worldwide. Other issues are transparency, diversity and professionalism.


Transparency is another key principle of the Schwartz Report: students should have plenty of guidance to help them make the right choice. The admissions policy should also be available to the student: the SPA's guidelines advise that it should be clearly written in user-friendly language, and easy to locate (Supporting Professionalism in Admissions, 2009).

There should also be as much information about the course as possible.


The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), the UK's centralized organization for processing admissions for undergraduate courses, provides full profiles of each course, covering course content, the university's facilities, entry requirements and the application process, as well as career options, teaching methods, student support, open days, and advice on writing personal statements.

The Arab Network for Quality Assurance in Higher Education recently examined computer science and business administration courses across a number of Arab states, and commended six universities on the clarity of their admissions processes, which provided clear advice to applicants, including information on joining procedures, as well as the structure of the programme and its choices.

In South Africa, the Higher Education Quality Committee recommended that institutions should liaise proactively with students in their local area, and provide guidance on flexible entry routes, the curriculum, and careers.


The whole issue of diversity – ensuring an equitable ethnic composition, offering opportunities to older people who missed out on higher education "first time round", or to those who are socially disadvantaged – is one of the most complex areas of higher education.

On the one hand, equality of opportunity and access is on the political agenda of educational policymakers all over the world. But on the other, all sorts of questions are raised – if you introduce quotas, or criteria that benefit particular groups, how will that appear to those outside the group who are otherwise very well qualified? And if you lower entry requirements for the benefit of other groups, for example, older students who have few qualifications but a lot of life experience, this has resource implications for additional teaching and counselling.

In the US, the desire to have a diverse student body has led some institutions to develop affirmative action policies – only to have these policies undermined by legislative actions. Denied the possibility of using quotas, institutions have to find other ways of meeting diversity goals, such as widening their selection criteria, or making specific efforts to recruit students in particular areas.


The University of California has announced a new admissions policy to take effect in three years' time. The intention is to widen the pool of high-school applicants and make the process more fair. However, it has caused great concern among Asian-American students who presently make up at least 40 per cent of the student body, and who claim that the new policy will discriminate against them. However, officials deny that is the projected result or intent of the proposals, which involve scrapping the requirement to take two SAT subject tests and reducing the number of students guaranteed admission based on grades and test scores alone. They claim that the intention is to remove unnecessary barriers and expand the pool of applicants.

Affirmative action is not confined to the US: the Parisian Institute of Political Science has recently implemented a second path of admission for students from schools in what are termed priority education zones (economically disadvantaged areas) (Goastellec, 2008).

In the UK, the Schwartz Report (Schwartz, 2004: p. 11) delicately circumvents the issue, advising institutions to ensure "equality of opportunity within the legal framework", and encourage diversity which "enriches the learning environment" (Schwartz, 2004: p. 7). Its stance however is that higher education should not compensate for educational or social disadvantage, and that it is the duty of universities to seek the brightest and most promising applicants, who should be individually assessed and not treated as members of a group (Schwartz, 2004: p. 54). On the other hand, it urges institutions to look fairly at post-qualification applications and vocational qualifications.

Post-apartheid South Africa is making strenuous efforts to redress past imbalances and use higher education to create equality of opportunity. It is interesting to note that in contrast to the stipulations of the Schwarz Report discussed earlier, the Higher Education Act of 1997 requires that:

"the admissions policy of a public higher education institution must provide for the redress of past inequalities" (Council on Higher Education, 2004: p. 7).

It urges institutions to use both direct and indirect methods to ensure equal representation, refering to "equity-driven enrolment targets", as well as to be flexible about entry requirements, for example recognizing prior learning. It also acknowledges the importance of support resources, and suggests that the threat of drop-out can be countered by:

"comprehensive, sustained, high quality curriculum interventions, which develop students’ general academic and cognitive skills, their language competence and their capacity for self-directed learning, in the context of mainstream learning; thus ensuring such students’ eventual success in HE" (Council on Higher Education, 2004: p. 6).

Vietnam is also making strenuous efforts to re-organize its higher education to achieve greater social equity. In particular, its highly selective university entrance exam (approximately 15 per cent of candidates are accepted) has a different benchmark depending on the candidate's region (mountainous areas, remote areas and poor social backgrounds, country areas, towns and provincial cities, big cities such as Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi), which acknowledges differences dependent on geography.

Just as important for access is looking at an applicant's individual circumstances, rather than purely the group to which they belong. The Schwarz Report urged universities to look at "contextual factors", although without a clear indication of what these might be, other than "additional responsibilities at home or at work", and "interrupted schooling". From the other side of the Atlantic, Laird also mentions context rather more explicitly:

"Given the huge disparities in opportunities offered to American youngsters, it is crucial to assess a student's achievements against her or his circumstances. That does not mean just language history, family income, and parental education levels, especially in the evaluation of standardized test scores, although these three items are fundamentally important. It means understanding as much as possible about the individual student's circumstances as well as her family, school, and community circumstances. And it does not mean automatically rewarding applicants who have faced difficult circumstances. It means measuring their achievements against those circumstances. It means acknowledging the qualities of responsibility and dependability in a student who cares for younger siblings every day after school as much as for the student who is a leader in school activities" (Laird, 2005: pp. 24-25).


Many countries – for example, Egypt, South Africa and Vietnam – have a centralized admissions system, which either sets the criteria or controls the process. This can help towards fairness, as in the case of Vietnam, where the government can adjudicate between regions, or South Africa, where there has been a proposal to rationalize the admissions process by centralizing it, although individual institutions could set their own criteria and numbers of places on programmes.

In practice, however, many institutions will set their own policies, nagged by central government policymaking, but above all driven by their own mission. There is a move in the UK, however, towards centralization within institutions, advocated by the Schwartz Report (2004) and by the SPA. The latter advises that there should be a body with overall responsibility for admissions, ensuring that the policy is in line with institutional guidelines, and taking care of assessment methods used, review of policy, etc. (Supporting Professionalism in Admissions, 2009).