Select Committee on Education and Employment Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from the Association of University Teachers (HE 68)


  The Association of University Teachers (AUT) has recently called for a fundamental review of admissions policy and practice in the interests of improving access to higher education among under-represented groups.[17] If a review is to be conducted it would need to address all aspects of the admissions process, including improving support for admissions tutors,[18] who undertake their job with little or no training or back-up support. In particular, the association believes that:

    —  the review on admissions should commission research into current admissions policies and practices across the higher education sector;

    —  higher education institutions need to provide admissions tutors with sufficient resources and time to do the job effectively, and tutors must be positively rewarded for involvement in admissions work;

    —  higher education institutions should be encouraged to institute high quality staff development programmes concerning admissions and widening participation.

  1.  The Association represents over 40,000 academic and academic-related staff in UK universities, colleges and research institutes; we have members in both the "old" and the "new" (post-1992) universities. We welcome the chance to respond on the topic of access to higher education. One of the fundamental principles of a civilised society is a fair and equitable system of higher education. While an equitable system of higher education is a widely shared goal, the evidence as it stands highlights a number of significant inequalities in participation between different socio-economic groups.[19] There are various structural, individual and institutional reasons for the under-representation of students from lower socio-economic families and neighbourhoods. Cultural barriers, the nature of the qualifications system and financial obstacles, for example, were all sign-posted in our evidence to a previous Select Committee Inquiry on Education and Employment.[20] Universities, including individual admissions tutors, are making great efforts to improve access to higher education, but the association recognises that these efforts need to be built on and the sector must make greater efforts to boost the percentage of state-educated students applying and gaining places at the more prestigious universities. This must, of course, be done in partnership with schools. The primary responsibility for encouraging more applications to our most prestigious universities rests with the schools; but the universities must ensure that potential students know that their applications will be welcomed and treated fairly. The government must also accept their responsibility to fund access schemes and relevant staff development and training generously.

  2.  In recent years, the sector has begun to accumulate more accurate information about statistical patterns and "widening participation" performance indicators.[21] We also possess a greater awareness of "good practice" in widening access to higher education.[22] Despite these positive developments, the sector continues to know very little about the day-to-day conduct of higher education admissions and selection procedures. This is because undergraduate admissions procedures are usually devolved to departments and remain the responsibility of individual tutors. Moreover, there has been no major study of admissions policy and practice since a Training Agency survey in the late 1980s.[23] Although there have been a few small-scale studies since then,[24] there appears to be little rigorous and systematic data on actual admissions practices. We, therefore, strongly recommend that the relevant stakeholders in the sector (DfEE, HEFCE, CVCP) commission research in this area. As with the earlier Training Agency project, this could map present patterns over a range of institutions and courses: scrutinise the justifications for these admissions policies and practices; and evaluate the potential for widening the participation rate.

  3.  Despite the absence of contemporary research a number of broad generalisations can be made about the conditions in which admissions tutors operate. Admissions work remains undervalued. It tends to have little status or reward, and frequently operates within institutional contexts were minimal resources are provided. Admission tutors also tend to receive little or no formal training (though the picture varies according to institution and department). Most of them are trained "on the job" through a combination of written procedural principles and guidance from a more experienced colleague. Because they are teachers and researchers in their own right, they have few incentives to become "specialists" in the area of selection procedures.

  4.  The national higher education admissions context has also become progressively more complex in recent years. Growing numbers of students now come through routes other than A level. Developments such as the accreditation of prior experiential learning (APEL) continue to alter the environment in which application, selection and progression takes place. Moreover, changes to advanced level qualifications (curriculum 2000) and the new UCAS tariff [25] will necessitate a major shift in admissions strategies from 2001. Within this context, tutor training and staff development programmes become increasingly important.

  5.  Access and widening participation in higher education has generally been neglected as an area for staff development (especially in relation to admissions)[26]. Consequently, there is very little evidence as to "best practice". Staff development programmes for academic admissions staff, however, would need to go beyond the mechanics of admissions, and cover the main policy issues concerned with access (including equal opportunities)[27] Such programmes should also be widely available and if possible be targeted not only at existing admissions tutors but staff members as a whole.[28]

Association of University Teachers
July 2000

17   AUT press release, 6 June 2000: Back

18   These are teachers and researchers who are responsible for admissions at a departmental or course level. They differ from "admissions officers" who are the administrative staff in charge of the institutions' admissions policy. Back

19   Recent evidence from the Sutton Trust has already been brought to the attention of the Select Committee. Back

20   AUT, Access for all? An inquiry into participation in post-16 education of the 1990s, a response to the inquiry by the Select Committee for Education and Employment London: AUT, 1998. Back

21   HEFCE,Performance Indicators in Higher Education, Bristol: HEFCE, 1999. Back

22   CVCP, From elitism to inclusion: good practice in widening access to higher education, London: CVCP, 1999. Back

23   O Fulton, and S Ellwood, S, Admissions to Higher Education: Policy and Practice, Sheffield, Department of Employment: The Training Agency, 1989. Back

24   A Brown, and J Bimrose,"Admissions to higher education: current practice and future policy", Journal of Access Studies, Vol 8, 1993, pp 154-169; D Smith, P Scott and C Bargh, "Standard systems, non-standard students: The impact of consolidation on access to higher education", Journal of Access Studies, Vol 10, 1995, pp 120-136. Back

25   From 2002 A level scores will be supplanted by a new tariff that will also value other qualifications used for entry to higher education. Back

26   R Imeson, and L Garner, "Staff development, Access and cross-sector collaboration-an unholy and unworkable alliance for the 1990s", Journal of Access Studies, 1994, Vol 9, pp 91-107. Back

27   M Stowell, Equal Opportunities, Access and Admissions: Tensions and Issues for Institutional Policy, Journal of Access Studies, Volume 7, 1992, 164-179. Back

28   Fulton, and Ellwood, op Cit, pp 21. Back

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