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Admission to higher education

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By Margaret Adolphus


"This young woman could be one of the brightest applicants in the pool but there are several references to shyness."

"Seems a tad frothy."

"Short with big ears."

The above are all marginal comments made on applications to one of the world's most famous and academically distinguished universities. They were found by the Office of Civil Rights at the federal education department when it investigated Harvard in the 1980s (Gladwell, 2005), and epitomize what many consider poor practice in admissions policy – subjective and ostensibly bearing no relation to academic merit.

University admissions rarely make the headlines (except in cases such as that of Laura Spence, the British schoolgirl who despite excellent academic credentials was refused admission to Oxford). Admissions policies are none the less one of the most important issues for higher education, and indeed for society at large, for several reasons.

In the first place, there has been a worldwide increase in access to higher education, with an estimate of 150 million students in 2025, more than tripling the number in 1975 (Goastellec, 2008). This is linked with a general awareness of the importance of education in equipping the workforce for a knowledge economy. And finally, access to education figures widely on the policy agenda, with a concern for social and ethnic diversity as well as offering chances to those who may have missed out on education the first time round. Part of the function of universities is to help create a more equal and socially just society.