Why universities should recruit students on their character

Tom Harrison and Joe McDowell argue for an alternative to relying on standardised testing to judge university admissions.

If the summer of 2020 has revealed anything, it’s arguably that we over-rely on standardised testing as a means of judgement for university admissions.

It’s got to be a mistake, I have never been a D-grade student,”

I feel my life has been completely ruined, I can’t get into any universities with such grades or progress further in my life.”

Those were the words of Nina, a year 13 student from Stamford, Lincolnshire to Schools Minister Nick Gibb MP (BBC News, 2020). Nina had hoped to study to become a vet when she received three adjusted D grades after being predicted ABB.

They [the government] need to believe in the teachers,” she said. “The teachers are professionals. They see students every day, they talk to them, they know them personally… They are the best people to predict the grades.” (BBC News, 2020)

As we now know a few days later Nina and many other students had the grades they received amended to reflect teacher assessment and we can hope that Nina’s plans for her education are back on track.

Ministers, government and opposition leaders have all suggested that next year’s exams be pushed back or the content reduced to try and avoid this happening again and yet teachers and union leaders have remarked that this would simply be ‘window dressing’ and ‘little more than tinkering at the edges’.

But even with such a delay, the danger is that we end up with a fresh batch of “Ninas”. And that means moving away from A levels as the way to judge university applicants altogether.

Taking it personally

Although students are required to complete personal statements when applying for a university place, how often are these seriously taken into account? Very few universities interview students before offering places.

It seems more than ever that grades are the only game in town. This has left, what might be called, a character gap. Potential students are judged on if they got As, Bs and Cs, not on if they are courageous, honest and resilient – amongst other important human qualities. This is problematic as employers, in the words of the admission body themselves, recruit on these “softer” skills, best defined as character, over formal qualifications.

What is Character?

  • To talk of someone’s character is to talk of who they are. Character traits are dispositions that are consistent across situations and spheres of life, but are not fixed. Character can be cultivated, and it can be corrupted. Character is multi-dimensional, combining thought, emotion, motivation and action.
  • Character changes over time – it is malleable not fixed
  • Character is visible in conduct – it involves observable actions
  • Character is social – it is shaped within cultural contexts
  • Character involves choice and autonomy – it is rational and free not blindly conformist
  • Character involves principles and convictions – it is related to questions of personal meaning and purpose
  • Character involves effort – it requires ongoing reflection and expression
  • Character requires will-power – it takes motivation as well as judgement

These character qualities are also expected to become increasingly important in the fourth industrial revolution. The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, through multiple research projects, has been addressing this character gap.

The centre has recently published Character Education in Universities: A Framework for Flourishing (2020) in partnership with the Oxford Character Project. Developed in consultation with senior university administrators and academic specialists, this framework is designed to help universities articulate and structure their mission to further the holistic development of their students.

As well as outlining how higher education providers can shape a generation of characterful individuals, it offers helpful guidance on how universities could select their students, drawing not just on anticipated grades but on more accurately understanding who students are, and their potential to harness the practical wisdom that will allow them to contribute most meaningfully to a flourishing society.

Character is coming

Beyond Higher Education, character education has a growing profile, perhaps best showcased with the addition of explicit expectations for the formation of character in schools to the 2019 Ofsted inspection framework supported by the Character Education framework (Department for Education, 2019).

These commitments reflect the increasing interest in character development of parents, pupils, teachers and politicians, and it is perhaps only natural that the next step would be to focus on how these advancements are reflected in assessing character and how they are used by students to apply to university.

Time at university can be a life-changing experience. By recognising the situations in which good character can be caught, sought and taught on our “campuses”, virtues such as critical thinking, open-mindedness and academic honesty can be better cultivated.

Admissions officers across the world are seeking students who engage respectfully and conscientiously with those with whom they disagree and have the capacity to grow in the creativity, discernment and good judgement required to formulate hypotheses, evaluate evidence, construct arguments and draw fitting conclusions from complex analyses and debate.

This new framework builds upon a wealth of research conducted by the Jubilee Centre into the development of such characteristics at an earlier school level, most notably outlined in A Framework for Character Education in Schools. To ensure this continues, universities must show new wisdom in the way they choose students to admit, and in a year where there has been an absence of traditional metrics, this new method matters more than ever.

Not just vocational

At the heart of this new proposal is a sense of preparation. For many vocational courses (nursing, medicine, veterinary science, social work etc.) it is standard practice to expect applicants to have completed acts of service. At its heart this is character development, demonstrated by the compassion to pursue the act in the first place, the patience to complete, the tact required to work in often challenging situations and the ability to reflect, process and articulate how you have grown from the experience.

We would suggest that this kind of approach should not just be these to these professions but demonstrated across the board and given greater weighting.

Many personal statements will already include such narratives as applicants attempt to demonstrate their best selves but if it isn’t explicit in what HEI’s expect then the fear is it becomes a system only those that know, know to do. While this could well mean greater investment and a more detailed process, ultimately we do not believe that there are any that would see getting the right students, on the right course, for the right reasons could be anything other than a positive.

As the Director of the Jubilee Centre likes to remark, Character is hard to measure but can be easily recognised.

Character involves effort. It requires ongoing reflection and expression, will-power and motivation as well as good judgement, empathy and curiosity. These are all traits any tutor would desire to have in their classroom. They are values that any organisation with ambitions to be the civic heart of their community would hope to have in their student body. In short, those with the potential to develop their character, and to harness their practical wisdom, are exactly the students that any HE provider would hope to attract.

While grades would have a role (perhaps as a baseline), greater emphasis should be placed on interviews whilst we could also learn lessons from of many WP /Pathways programmes which provide the time and space to get to know those students, recognising their potential, who often go on to do just as well as their peers even if their initial A levels were lower. As the UK Astronaut Tim Peake remarked in 2016, “Character is important – a CV may get you the interview, but character will get you the job.”

Ultimately as we raise the prominence of character, accompanied by the right guidance for colleges and sixth form centres, the job of recruitment might become a little easier as you would be judging people based on that which they have actually done and have demonstrated.

By listening to teachers, not just about predicted grades but about the character qualities of their students, we may enter a new, more stable era of university admissions study founded not on estimation but based on a truer reflection of potential based on that which has been done and have demonstrated. By putting character first, we may be giving students a greater sense of ownership over that next chapter of their educational journey while also equipping a generation to play their part in helping their communities to flourish.

3 responses to “Why universities should recruit students on their character

  1. We did this – recruited for two years based on character-referencing interviews. Retention and entry tariff increased. OfS deemed it an unconditional offer and stopped it. I think your article is very interesting, we need a wider debate on the basis of admission to Uni than just assuming A-level or BTECs will do the job for us. Count me in if I can help.

  2. Totally agree – I was lucky enough to be interviewed for my university place, so when I failed all but one of my A levels, the lead tutor, Brian Bolt, who I will be in debt forever, phoned me and told me to just get another A level based on my personality, enthusiasm and extras on my CV. I did, they took me despite my C and D grade and I have been lucky enough to have had an amazing career in education. The whole point is it is not just about the ability to learn, remember and recite that gets you through – it’s the engagement, determination and perseverance too!
    I am now a deputy Headteacher, who holds an MA- it could have been so different if I had not been given the opportunity I was given!

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