Friday, August 17, 2007

Another No It's Not a Lottery... (A Level Results)

Well done to anyone getting A level results today. Apparently my cousin James got 5 As and a B, which must mean they are gettign easier!

Of course, aside from questioning standards, this brings up the annual fuss about university places. This story from the BBC seems typical:

Twin sisters Tania and Mahua Bhaduri from West Malling, Kent, both got five grade As. But unlike her sister, Tania has not got a university place. Their father, Dr Bim Bhaduri, said his daughter Tania - who got the As in biology, chemistry, French, maths and psychology - had been rejected from universities including Oxford, Bristol and Sheffield. But Mahua, who studied almost the same A-levels as her sister at state foundation school Tonbridge Grammar for Girls - but took geography instead of psychology, has earned a place at Imperial College, London. Dr Bhaduri added: "The system really is a lottery, they can't differentiate between bright and brighter and this is a problem. The two girls both did very well but only one of them got a place to go to university."

Well, straight-A students get rejected from Oxford all the time, Laura Spence being the most famous example. I suppose it may be somewhat surprising that Tania didn't get in elsewhere, particularly given other universities can no longer discriminate agaisnt Oxbridge applicants, but then it's not clear where else she applied or what for.

Even if the two girls performed equally well in their A-levels, and all other selection criteria, the fact they were applying for different coruses at different universities means they'll be up against different competition. Consider, if I was to sprint 100m in 14 seconds in one race and you were to do so in another, I might win and you might be last, although in a sense we're equally deserving because we did the same thing.

If anything, it seems to me that the exams are more of a lottery, because one person's performances could be very different depending on whether they had a good day or a bad day or what questions come up. University admissions aren't, although of course it has been proposed that they should be - see Alan Ryan's comments in 2000 and 2007. To quote the latter: "at this time of year it always occurs to me that we would be better off behaving like the Dutch and the Irish and allocating some - I'd say a third - of our places by lottery. When critics say that Oxbridge admissions - really, admissions in any of the dozen most competitive universities - are a lottery, they mean it as a complaint; but if it is true that a third of the students admitted could without injustice have been selected at random from a pool from which the shoo-ins at one end and the no-hopers at the other had been eliminated, a lottery would be quicker and fairer. And speaking personally, I'd much rather that the unsuccessful candidates, along with their schools and their parents, spent January yelling at the computer than complaining to me about my colleagues' judgment."

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