Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

University challenge

University students

Mike Nicholson of the University of Oxford discusses diplomas, the A* and the extended project, and explains steps that the university is taking to broaden its appeal to students of all backgrounds.

It is true that entry to the University of Oxford is highly competitive. While the university seeks to identify candidates who, regardless of their background or personal circumstances, have the academic ability and potential to succeed, we know that the perception remains that Oxford is reluctant to consider students from particular schools or colleges, and that it is slow to embrace new qualifications.

Some view as unfair the admissions processes which are designed to identify the potential and aptitudes of an applicant.

But with almost 14,000 well-qualified and highly motivated applicants, and the capacity to make offers to only one in four of those who apply, how can Oxford differentiate between students who all have strong academic credentials, focused and interesting personal statements, and glowing references? And how will changes to the 14-19 curriculum assist in differentiating between candidates?

Firstly, the university accepts that not all students with the potential to achieve the highest grades want to apply to Oxford. But we are concerned about the applicants who do not apply because they have mistaken beliefs about the university, particularly about cost and whether they will fit in, or who are deterred because they feel that the process of applying is overly complicated.

Teachers are pivotal to students' aspirations and their subject choice so we work through them to make sure that students are basing their decisions on fact rather than fiction. This is especially so for very able students with little or no family history of higher education.

Collaborative work

We are aware that teachers need clear advice about the subjects and grades their students must have. Collaborative work with Cambridge University and other Russell Group universities is underway to explain the approaches used in assessing entry to competitive courses.

Oxford held eight day-long regional teachers' conferences in June and July, to allow guidance advisers to learn more about selection criteria, aptitude testing and interviews.

Attending ASCL's conference in March gave us feedback from school and college leaders on what information, in what format, is most useful. In response, we will be producing an e-newsletter for teachers about admissions and access issues. This will be sent out at timely points in the year - for example, a few weeks before our admissions deadline or in good time to sign up for open days or regional conferences.

Finance remains a concern for many applicants and their parents. At Oxford, 'Opportunity bursaries' provide applicants from low-income households with substantial financial support. From September 2008, any student whose annual family income is below 50,001 will be entitled to a bursary of up to 3,150 per year. Students with a household income below 18,000 will receive an extra 850 in the first year of their course. This is in addition to the financial assistance provided through the Government's higher education grants and loans schemes.

Another myth is that Oxford is dominated by students from independent schools. The truth is that just over half of our British undergraduates are from state schools.

Developments in the admissions process - including collecting contextual data about applicants' education, and increased use of aptitude tests to help identify students' potential rather than their ability - are helping to provide admissions tutors with a rounded picture of each candidate beyond predicted exam grades.

Aptitude tests enable tutors to compare and benchmark candidates against each other, an important consideration given the diverse nature of qualifications that are emerging. As the changes to 14-19 education start to have an impact, these tests will help to compare the suitability of candidates taking the range of courses and options available through the various UK examination boards.

Changes to the admissions process have also placed much greater emphasis on subject choice rather than college selection. Of students securing offers in the last admissions round, 23 per cent received them from a college that was not their original preference. This proportion is rising, as admissions tutors try to identify the most able candidates across the applicant pool, rather than restricting their decisions to those applying to a specific college.

Looking to the future, changes in qualifications may help the university differentiate between candidates, but even the proposed A* grade will only provide this detail at the end of the process, not at the point that candidates are applying and the university is selecting for interview. It is highly unlikely that Oxford will utilise the A* in offers until there is a sense of the probable grade distribution - even then, the probability is that candidates would need an A* in the one subject most relevant for their degree course, not three A* grades.

Research and analytical skills

The introduction of the extended project will prove useful, allowing students to develop research and analytical skills that would fit well with Oxford's teaching and learning style, and enabling candidates to engage in study that could demonstrate their academic interests if they are applying for courses that emphasise interdisciplinary study or cover subject disciplines that they have not had the opportunity to study previously. Developments in the content of A-level syllabuses also appear to be providing greater range and opportunity for students to expand their understanding and knowledge base.

The introduction of the advanced and extended diplomas will also provide opportunities for students, although it is already clear that the key area of interest for Oxford's admissions will be the type of advanced specialist learning (ASL) that applicants have engaged in, and not all diplomas will provide an appropriate preparation for entry to all courses at Oxford (in the same way that, at present, certain degree schemes require that candidates undertake pre-requisite study in specific subjects in their post-16 studies).

The engineering diploma potentially fills a gap in existing provision, for example, by allowing a student to specialise in engineering at an earlier stage than A level allows. However acceptability for Oxford entrance will be determined by the level of maths and physics covered through the ASL by a candidate. The engineering mathematics module being developed for the engineering diploma, with strong involvement from universities, will potentially meet this requirement.

Like schools and colleges, we are concerned that not all students will have equal opportunities to access the full range of diploma lines, particularly in rural areas, and that there will be inadequate resources for schools and colleges to effectively manage the process of educating diploma students across multiple sites within a consortium.

We still await details of the extended diploma but the university will look with interest at any qualifications that provide sufficient challenge that develops and demonstrates the academic potential of the most able candidates.

Mike Nicholson is director of undergraduate admissions at Oxford University.

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