I will spend most of today away from the University, attending a meeting of the Data Advisory Group in London. This is a working party that runs under the auspices of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), to try and ensure that the collection of data for the admissions process occurs in a sensible and timely fashion. I can already feel many of you reaching for the mouse in order to click away from the page, so before I lose you, let me explain why this is important and relevant.
For several years now, people who work in admissions to higher education have been trying to assess whether there are things that we can identify in the admissions process that will give clear indications of an applicant's ability and potential. This "contextual data", should it exist, needs to be based on solid, verifiable evidence that can have a statistical base proving that it can positively identify and predict the potential an applicant may have for future study.
For instance, if we could be certain that everyone who had fair hair, was the second child in their family, spent at least two hours each day on MSN messenger and was named Florence was guaranteed to end up with a fantastic degree in Fine Art irrespective of whatever university or college they attended, then we would have some data that may assist in the admissions process.
Now obviously that is a clearly unprovable or even verifiable statement, so it wouldn't help with the process of admitting students. But there are perhaps more relevant issues that could help identify potential and ability, and the Data Advisory Group is today (amongst other things) looking at the first interim report on the work that has happened to date by the imaginatively titled Contextual Data Sub Group.
For the broader admissions process the final outcomes could be very useful. There is already a lot of debate as to whether aptitude tests or modular unit grades from A-level qualifications can accurately predict applicant potential.
There is regular discussion as to whether GCSE qualifications that UK students take at the age of sixteen years are a better indicator of final degree performance than A-levels that are taken at eighteen years.
Where does this then lead when universities are assessing the qualifications that are attained outside the UK, or where an applicant may have significant relevant employment or life experience but no evidence of recent study?
As the posts that I have provided to date indicate, the admissions process at Oxford (and at every other university or college) is seeking to identify the most appropriate students for the course and institution. The admissions tutors at Oxford consider all sorts of evidence, including looking at prior educational attainment, predicted performance, references, personal statements, interviews, test results and aptitude scores, and examples of submitted work. How that information and evidence is weighted and measured is a source of constant and frequent discussion and analysis, and I expect that it will commence once again in January, when the dust from this admissions round begins to settle.
Is there therefore a "silver bullet", a piece of contextual information that will make this activity more certain and effective? Unless we ask the question then we will never stand any chance of finding out. For applicants (and those who advise them) it is however comforting to know that the higher education sector in the UK isn't making the assumption that there is not, and is doing what it can to try and find out if there is.