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Admissions policy

Press release issued: 4 March 2003

Statement from the University of Bristol issued in response to allegations from the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference and the Girls' School Association.

Statement from the University of Bristol

Issued in response to allegations from the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference and the Girls' School Association.

The University of Bristol stands accused in some quarters of social engineering, operating a quota system, dumbing down, exercising bias against independent schools, and compromising its standards in order to satisfy Government aspirations and access additional funding. It is said that, in common with certain other leading universities, Bristol is lowering the high standards for which it has always been known in order to recruit a higher proportion of its students from state schools and disadvantaged backgrounds.

These allegations are false. Briefly, the facts are these:

Bristol will never compromise its standards. They are at the heart of everything it does. It selects its students according to their academic potential and aims to recruit only the best.

The University does not operate a quota system. In common with every other university, Bristol has been given a target or benchmark by the Higher Education Funding Council for England against which to monitor its progress in attracting applications from and awarding places to people with the necessary potential from across the education spectrum. The University has translated this overall target into departmental ones, recognising that some subjects will always attract a higher proportion of applications from independent schools because they are more commonly taught at those schools. These targets (not quotas) are simply yardsticks against which departments can measure aspects of their performance in undergraduate recruitment.

The University remains one of the most popular in the country, with some 39,000 applications for a little over 3,000 places in 2002. In some subjects (for example, English, History, Economics and Law), competition is extremely fierce. There can be 30 or more people vying for each place.

Given the pressure on places in these subjects, the University has no option but to reject a high proportion of the applicants. For example, of the 1,500 applicants for 47 places available in English for 2003 entry, 1,300 are predicted to meet or exceed the minimum requirement of two As and one B. Of these 1,300 applicants, 500 are predicted to get a perfect score at A-level. It follows that the University will have to reject hundreds of extremely able candidates from state and independent schools. This is regrettable and will cause disappointment, but it is also inevitable and unsurprising. In many other subjects, including sciences and engineering, the competition is much less intense.

Like other universities, Bristol has recognised that important though they are, actual and predicted examination results are not the only indicators of academic potential. In carrying out the difficult task of selection, admissions tutors also take into account each candidate's personal statement and the school's reference. In some subjects the University conducts interviews; in others the numbers are simply too great.

There is no bias towards pupils from one type of secondary school or another. The bias is towards academic potential, which can be found in every section of society. We have long taken active steps to identify and encourage such potential in the interests of attracting and recruiting the best students. The University and the Students' Union work in schools and run residential summer schools as part of the effort to raise aspirations and interest talented youngsters in the possibility of going to university.

The University sometimes makes slightly lower-than-normal offers to outstanding candidates from low-achieving schools if there is good reason to believe that they have the necessary academic potential. It does this largely as an encouragement to those who have the ability to thrive here but lack the confidence that they could achieve a place. In practice such people generally go on to achieve higher-than-predicted grades anyway. The average A-level points score of Bristol's intake is going up, not down.

There is no question of the University attempting to widen participation in order to gain Government cash. Bristol agreed its widening participation strategy in 1998 - long before widening participation became part of Government policy. Work in this field is resource-intensive and funding from the Government helps to cover the costs. The University is not motivated by money but by the desire to recruit the best students and by the recognition that if it is to act fairly and avoid missing out on some of the most able people, it must have regard to factors in addition to predicted A-level grades.

Currently, 39 per cent of Bristol's students come from the private sector - one of the highest proportions at any UK university. Only 15 per cent of 16- to 18-year-olds who are studying for A-levels are doing so in the independent sector. Ironically, some see these figures as evidence of discrimination in favour of independent schools. Others use statistics to argue that Bristol discriminates against the very same schools. The fact is that the University actively opposes discrimination of any kind and does all it reasonably can to treat every application with scrupulous fairness.

Bristol will continue to seek the students with the greatest potential to succeed here and to welcome them warmly, irrespective of their social or educational background.

The 'boycott' announced today by the Independent Schools Council is disappointing and based on a fallacy. The University does not practice unfair discrimination, it does not operate quotas and it will continue to recruit exceptionally able students from all backgrounds through a selection process that is as fair and straightforward as we can make it. Pupils, not schools, make the decisions about which universities to apply to and we are confident that they will continue to want to study at Bristol. This is one of the UK's most popular and successful universities and we look forward to receiving as many applications in future as we have in the past.

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