Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60
WEDNESDAY 14 MARCH 2001
60. If you were to have that relatively short
gap for those going straight on to university, would you not then
also knock on the head the prospect of what might be called the
traditional gap year because this now becomes such a long period
that very few students will think it is appropriate for them.
(Dr Higgins) I do not see why not. They would do their
gap year and they could either apply at the end of their gap year,
because that would be the application process, or they would make
an application as per normal and then just take a year out.
61. So you do not think it would have any impact
on the gap year student.
(Dr Higgins) No.
62. In your evidence to us, I asked you: "This
is institutions other than Oxford and Cambridge, if people have
put Oxford or Cambridge on that form higher, are less likely to
give them an interview." You said, "That is correct"
and that is one of the reasons for you moving to anonymise, as
far as each university is concerned, the other choices in a number
of years. I asked you: "That has very worrying implications
for people who feel they might be marginal for Oxford or Cambridge
and do not want to limit their opportunities elsewhere,"
and you said, "Precisely." I asked: "That might
deter them from applying to Oxford and Cambridge," and you
said, "It is not a universal practice by any means but there
is some evidence that it happens." Do you stand by that?
(Dr Higgins) There is some evidence that it happens.
Dr Harris: Because Sir Kenneth Calman said that
there was no evidence for these concerns; indeed, he said it was
a crazy proposition.
Chairman: In respect of Durham.
63. In respect of Durham. "So you are putting
it on the record?" the Chairman asked. "Absolutely.
That is a crazy statement to make." If it is not Durham,
where is it and what is the evidence?
(Dr Higgins) There are two bits of evidence I would
allude to. The first is a copy of a letter which was sent to me,
sent by a university to the teacher of a student. It said, "Sorry
we could not give you a place on our course in history because
it was in heavy demand but when we see you put us down as a substitute
reserve choice anyway." Then you draw your own conclusions.
That student had applied to either Oxford or Cambridge (I cannot
64. Did they make that university?
(Dr Higgins) No. A colleague of mine had always been
against anonymity until last year, when his son applied to either
Oxford or Cambridge (I cannot remember which) and he began to
feel rather appalled by the sorts of letters he was getting from
the other places to which he had applied. So there is some evidence.
It is not universal practice but there is some evidence.
65. And obviously teachers might well pick that
(Dr Higgins) Yes.
66. And say, "Well, if you are marginal
for Oxford or Cambridge it might hinder your opportunities at
the one you are more likely to get into."
(Dr Higgins) But, as of 2003 entry, there will be
blindness of decisions and blindness of choices, so nobody would
know where else you applied to.
67. I am grateful to you for reiterating that.
I have one last question, which is on another topic but it is
an important one, this issue of access by the universities to
early results. In a pre post qualification application world,
where there is strong evidence that some people are not applying
to universities which they do not think are "for them".
In the United States most selective universities reach out and
write to people saying, "Apply to us." Students who
might not have thought of it, who are bright and who have got
good early resultsGCSE, perhaps AS results in this casesee
it as an option: "I had never thought of that." They
are interested: "I ought to apply." It is not possible
at the moment, you indicated in your evidence. Has any progress
been made in making that possible?
(Dr Higgins) I hope so. We have written a paper and
sent it to the examining boards to ask them if they could make
available the pool of GCSE results for just those purposes which
you suggested. We do not yet know what the answers are in relation
to that but I understand the exam boards management committee
(as I think they call it) is meeting either this week or next
week to discuss that possibility. We will press them hard.
68. We are coming to the end of this session,
for which we are very grateful for your usual frankness and your
knowledge and information. Can I just come back to something that
was asked at the very beginning? If your Board do make the decision
of having a common system, a common date of entry for all universities,
how soon could that take place?
(Dr Higgins) I do not know what you are driving at
but I suspect in one case it cannot take place at all simply because
we have one particular cohort of applicants who are applying to
do the studio based part of design courses which they can apply
for on the basis of their diagnostic foundation and therefore
they do that quite late in the year, much later than the rest;
it is in March. That apart, if we can solve the Oxbridge problem
it could be done in a couple of years, I would have thought. Whenever
we have a major change in the system we have to give the universities
and colleges 18 months' notice.
69. Medical schools and veterinary schools have
interviews as well.
(Dr Higgins) That is right. I should say by the way
that we are at the moment hoping to sign off the questionnaire
tomorrow about a survey of students who applied to Oxbridge to
see whether they would like to apply to both if they were given
the opportunity, to see if they are bewildered or confused by
the fact that they have to fill in an additional form, to see
whether they feel that the 15 October closing date is the wrong
one for them, to see whether they would prefer to be applying
to the university rather than a college, to see whether they really
know the intricacies of applying to particular colleges.
70. You know that the majority of the board
was fundamentally of the view that all universities would be seen
as the same. We reiterate in the report that we have over a hundred
excellent universities in this country and we are very keen for
the whole university sector to be seen on the same basis. Is there
anything that you have not been asked this morning or have not
had the opportunity to say that you would like to say before we
close this session?
(Dr Higgins) Just one thing, and that is that the
universities and colleges (perhaps a little bit later but none
the less are now doing it) are really getting to grips with, as
you mentioned in the report, the implications of AS. Instead of
saying, "We are going to ask for three A levels", they
are beginning to say, "We want so many units", say 18
units which is equivalent to three A levels, and they are also
beginning to say how those units can be made up with splits of
perhaps two A levels and two AS levels or a 12-unit vocational
certificate and one A level. There is one medical school, who
actually declared quite early, who said they wanted 21 units,
which is more than three A levels, and they wanted good grades
at A level in two science subjects which they would need for medicine,
and then, to use their words, they said, "We strongly recommend
that you do two more AS levels in completely non-science subjects.
Your key skills could actually count towards those grades",
so I do think that the universities and colleges are now getting
to grips with this and in my view it is very encouraging.
Chairman: When the retention report hits the
light of day you will see that that is music to our ears. Thank
you very much.