‘Social Engineering’ Row Over Students’ Parental Data

There is controversy over moves to let university admissions tutors see the educational attainment and occupations of applicants’ parents. The admissions service, Ucas, also says its form for 2008 entry will ask applicants about their ethnicity and whether they have been in council care.

Vice-chancellors and ministers say the information helps widen participation. Others say it can be used for “social engineering”, discriminating against those with well-educated parents.

The president of Universities UK, Drummond Bone, said its members placed a high priority on attracting students from families and communities with little or no previous experience of higher education. “It is therefore useful for a university to have at its disposal a wide range of information to build up a full and rounded view of an applicant,” Prof Bone said. “It allows institutions to understand more about how the applicant got to where they are, and their potential.”

The data would also allow them to identify and support applicants and new students from disadvantaged backgrounds. “There is no question of any university dropping standards,” he added. “There is no benefit for a university in taking on students who cannot profit from higher education, or setting them up to fail. At the same time, universities wish to build diverse environments and address under-representation.”

Ucas chief executive Anthony McClaran said: “I think the universities are very conscious of the need not to discriminate both in principle, because it’s wrong, and because of legal reasons. What this is about is not about keeping people out of university but about trying to attract a wider group of people into university and having a wide range of indicators to assess their potential to succeed in higher education.”

Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell backed the changes and also rejected claims that they would result in discrimination. “Admission procedures are a matter for universities, not government,” he said. The decision had been taken by the Ucas board, made up of representatives of universities.

“Government does not sit on the Ucas board, and did not suggest the change to it. But it is, I believe, a sensible move by the university sector, as part of its overall effort to widen participation in higher education.” He gave, as a “practical example” of the sort of potentiual universities should seek out, someone who was predicted only C grades at A-level – but who had progressed from very poor GCSEs, and might therefore go on to excel.

His Conservative shadow, Boris Johnson, said supplying parental information to universities was ‘quite wrong’. “It would be disastrous for every university admissions procedure to become a nightmarish discussion in each individual case about nature versus nurture,” he said in a Commons debate on Thursday.

Collecting the information to study social trends was perfectly acceptable. “What is not right is for university admissions tutors and for university academics to feel the pressure and the oppression of this data and constantly being dragged into discussion about the background of individual candidates,” he said.

The general secretary of the Independent Schools Council, Jonathan Shephard, also saw no problem in the information on parents’ backgrounds being used for research. “But this information is of no relevance to admissions tutors – who are looking at candidates, not at parents – and should not be disclosed to universities,” he said.

Support for this view came from Marc Zao-Sanders, director of Pure Potential, an organisation that aims to raise the aspirations of students from the state sector by encouraging them to apply to top universities. “The process will have to be carefully managed to avoid social engineering,” he said.

“The reality is that there is a huge, wasted pool of talented, bright students who would get into the top universities on academic merit alone but are simply not applying.”

The National Union of Students vice president for education, Wes Streeting, said the charge of social engineering was ‘a knee-jerk reaction’. “This is primarily a monitoring tool and we trust universities to recruit students on merit,” he said.

“The real bias in higher education is still that non-traditional students, some from care and most of whom have no family history of accessing higher education, are still not properly represented in universities, and especially at the most elite universities.”