My university is a mid-ranking institution with pockets of excellence that serves a range of students (in terms of BTEC and A-level results). Both aspire to excellence overall of course but we are not Oxbridge. I am proud of the opportunities that we give students from low participation areas and our record in launching careers for many who may be the 1st to attend a university. You can keep your ivory towers, I’m quite happy in my slightly shabby pedagogical bungalow.
The current pandemic has not been a leveller. Working class and BAME citizens have been the hardest hit; either directly through contracting the virus or indirectly through effects on families and support networks. The schools that many of our applicants attend may have excellent teachers but are generally less well resourced than those in more affluent areas. Many students will not have had the capacity to engage in any digital learning provided towards the end of their courses in response to the pandemic. Their teachers, looking for evidence of attitude may have judged that as apathy rather than poverty. Many of our applicants have to hold down significant part-time work while studying for their BTEC or A-levels. If your mum has just lost her job and you are fortunate enough to still have a part-time role, your income that was once destined to pay for treats, may have become essential for covering bills.
Already disadvantaged by less well-resourced schooling in deprived areas (e.g. some 6th forms do not offer science subjects as they cannot afford it), from families that may not have the time to sit around discussing science, politics or society at dinner they have a sisyphean task to get into and then through HE. People who have not experienced the kind of poverty where your mum shouts at you for cutting the cheese too thickly, where you wear your father’s far too large cast-offs or where the potatoes you grow in your council house garden are more than a middle class affectation cannot understand this.
It is not fair to reinforce these disadvantages by reacting to the pandemic by hardwiring their economic deprivation into the flawed (as all models are) statistical algorithm that estimates what their results might have been. We have a duty to recognise the potential of our applicants and nurture it rather than judge them by our societies failures and the gross inequalities around us. We should not be distilling someone’s potential and future opportunities down to a 2-3 digit UCAS number or summary set of grades.
Let’s not pay too much attention to attainment levels this year. Let’s look at the journey each applicant has made and think about what they might be able to achieve and contribute to society given sufficient support. In fact, let’s not pay too much attention to exam results in general – they are a very narrow way to assess someone’s ability on a particular day.