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United Kingdom Undergoes Largest University Admissions Reform in 50 Years

England’s education officials have recommended changes in the country’s college admissions system that are designed to boost the numbers of disadvantaged students at prestigious colleges. 

Under the recommendations, universities will rely on the results of the “A-level” exam, a high school exit exam, in determining whether a student should be admitted to certain schools. Entrance into universities in the U.K. had previously depended on high school teachers’ predictions of student success. The use of test results mimics the American system in which admissions officials look to the SAT or ACT results to determine an applicant’s prospects for success.

Currently, students are awarded provisional slots at certain schools based on grade predictions stemming from the exit exams. Government admissions service statistics indicate that 55 percent of those predictions are wrong and about 9 percent underestimate how well students will do, including those from low-income families.

Supporters say the proposal — the biggest change in university admissions in 50 years — will help bright students from poor backgrounds get into elite institutions.

“Nobody is pretending it’s going to be easy,” says Bill Rammell, the higher education minister. “But we’ve worked very hard for some months to introduce these reforms, and we anticipate a sufficient level of momentum to carry this forward.”

Officials hope to move to a post-qualification admissions system by 2012. Most public universities support the change while prestigious institutions are generally opposed.

The policy change started in 2004, when Secretary of State for Education and Skills Charles Clarke commissioned a study on how colleges assess the merit of applicants for their courses. Professor Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, led the group that conducted the review.

In its final report, the group recommended that schools consider the value of a diverse student body. The group said, “it believes it is justifiable for an institution to consider an applicant’s contribution to the learning environment; and that institutions and courses which confer particular benefits upon their graduates have an obligation to make reasonable efforts to recruit a diverse student community. A diverse student community is likely to enhance all students’ skills of critical reasoning, teamwork and communication and produce graduates better able to contribute to a diverse society.”

The report also mentioned that it was aware of a recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court upholding a university’s “compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.”

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