23 SES 17 C, Higher Education
Student admission is an important area of policy and practice for universities. On a policy level, governments and universities negotiate and make choices regarding the numbers of students admitted to various institutions, fields and study programmes. They define criteria used for student selection and determine whether these criteria are applied universally or on a field-specific or institution-specific basis. Such decisions involve questions about how competitive opportunities for higher education can be fairly regulated. Debates and concerns exist about the conceptualisation of fairness, as such definitions impact on the resources, strategies and mechanisms that are put in place to implementing a fair higher education system in different national contexts. (e.g., McCowan 2016; Mountford-Zimdars and Daniel Sabbagh 2013; Lesley 2010)
At the heart of these debates is the admission to the elite sector of higher education (Bloch, Mitterle, Paradeise and Peter, 2018; Maxwell and Aggleton, 2015; van Zanten, Ball and Darchy-Koechlin, 2015). The widening participation in higher education has been accompanied by an increasing importance of attaining the most prestitigous universities and a persistent opportunity gap remains in access to such highly competitive ‘elite’ universities (Börjesson & Broady 2016; Marginson 2016). As perhaps unintended, there are more highly qualified candidates each year competing for the limited number of places in the most selective universities, resulting in lower acceptance rate and an increasing number of rejections. Rather than having individual candidates to be blamed for their failure of not gaining access, university rejection should be taken as an integral part of the system; selectivity cannot exist without a co-production of rejections.
Therefore, in this study, the focus will not be only on the fair distribution of access, but on fairness of rejections. What happen to those candidates who are rejected in the most competitive ‘elite’ admissions? How fair is the system from the rejected candidates’ point of view? What are the options available after rejection in a competitive student admission of universities?
The data consist of interviews with candidates who have applied to highly competitive Finnish universities, but have not gained access at the first year they applied. First, interview data will be inductively coded and classified, and recurrent themes will be identified based on a critical content analysis. Second, how rejected candidates perceive their situation and available options cannot be revealed by categorical analysis alone and the different viewpoints must be elaborated via interpretative analysis. Isopahkala-Bouret (2015) has developed discursive-narrative methods that will be used to analyse candidates’ agency and educational pathways after the ‘elite’ university rejections. In discursive-narrative analysis, the analytical focus is on cultural practices that enable the production of narratives. Narratives not only express personal/shared experiences, but also reveal the social and cultural contexts that construct those experiences. Experiences are not unmediated, unproblematic or foundational; rather, candidates are made to experience the rejection in a certain way because of their discursive positioning.
Rejection in highly competitive admissions is considered to have two types of (not necessarily mutually exclusive) consequences for the candidates’ future opportunities. First consequence relates to the horizontality of opportunities (McCowan 2016). University rejection forecloses access to the most prestigious universities and downscale the status range of universities available for admission. Second, rejection can delay entry to university if there are no alternative admissions to (non-selective) universities offered or candidate refuses to accept them. Rejection can lead the candidate to take a ‘year off’ and to prepare for the re-admission. Furthermore, rejection can motivate highly qualified candidates to compare the options available within different national contexts, and choose to move abroad after better university admission systems and access opportunities. These findings yield important insights for further research and for formulation of equitable admission policy in light of rejection and the following educational opportunities.
Mikael Börjesson and Donald Broady (2016) Elite Strategies in a Unified System of Higher Education. The Case of Sweden. L’Annee Sociologique, 66, 1. Bloch, R., Mitterle, A., Paradeise, C. & Peter, T. (eds.) (2018) Universities and the production of Elites: Discourses, Policies, and Strategies of Excellence and Stratification in Higher Education. Palgrave. Ulpukka Isopahkala-Bouret (2015). ‘It’s Considered a Second Class Thing’. The Differences in Status between Traditional and Newly Established Higher Education Credentials. Studies in Higher Education 40(7), 1291-1306. Jacobs Lesley (2010) Equality, adequacy, and stakes fairness: Retrieving the equal opportunities in education approach. Theory and Research in Education, 8, 3, 249–268. Marginson, Simon (2016). The worldwide trend to high participation higher education: dynamics of social stratification in inclusive systems. Higher Education, Volume 72(4), 413–434. https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007%2Fs10734-016-0016-x.pdf Maxwell, C., Aggleton, P. (eds.) (2015) Elite Education. International Perspectives. Routledge. Tristan McCowan (2016) Three dimensions of equity of access to higher education, Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 46, 4, 645-665. Anna Mountford-Zimdars and Daniel Sabbagh (2013) Fair Access to Higher Education: A Comparative Perspective, Comparative Education Review, 57, 3, 359–368. Agnès van Zanten & Stephen Ball, with Brigitte Darchy-Koechlin (2015) Elites, Privilege and Excellence. The National and Global Redefinition of Educational Advantage. Routledge.
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