Getting into Varsity: Comparability, Convergence and Congruence

by Barend Vlaardingerbroek and Neil Taylor


In their research in the field of international education, the editors found that the university admission function of terminating school assessment has largely eclipsed the school-leaving-certification aspect in systems where the two go together. But it is not only students from education systems which have curriculum-based external examinations at the culmination of schooling who aspire to enter university. Once the privilege of the well-heeled classes, university education has become to today’s middle-class youngster what a high school certificate was to preceding generations at the same stage of life. Be it the demands of the ‘knowledge society’ or merely credential inflation, a great many young people now regard tertiary education as the means by which to realise their ambitions. Schooling has become a stepping-stone to post-school education and training (e.g., university). This edited volume accordingly focuses on the transition from school to university.

In broad terms, there are two kinds of university admission systems: first, those in which upper secondary school qualifications explicitly confer the right to enrol at university, and second, those in which they do not. Some systems exhibit an additional layer of testing between those leading to school certification and the attainment of university entrance status. Securing the general right to enter university may only be a first step. Individual universities may impose their own entrance requirements, particularly in the case of competitive-entry programmes. These may involve selection procedures not associated with examinations or tests. In some systems, a student may be able to enrol in selective faculties directly upon making the transition from school; in others, there may be a significant lapse of time separating general university admission and enrolment in a desired field via ‘pre-’ courses or even first degrees in other fields.

‘Massification’, university autonomy, and student competition for places in highly esteemed programmes leading to the need for comparability mechanisms among entry qualifications are identified as three sets of factors that exert powerful influences on university admission policies and practices. University education represents a major public and private investment in human capital formation and is also a prominent ideological arena; access to university has come to be regarded as a right rather than a privilege in many societies. University entrance policies may be seen as constantly shifting pivots between the two opposing forces favouring the limiting of access and the freeing up of access.

Given the importance of securing the ‘right’ tertiary education, students are becoming more choosy about which university they attend. This can present problems for federal entities with a multiplicity of education systems within their borders, especially when divergence in end-of-school assessment procedures has occurred to the point where the establishment of comparability among the constituent entities is less than straightforward. The cross-border portability of university admission credentials is addressed through the inclusion of several such national systems.

Whereas comparability is a ubiquitous issue permeating the transition to university, convergence and congruence are harder to find. But, the editors argue, they are necessary in an increasingly globalising world of higher education. The question, though, is how they will come to fruition. The final chapter, ‘Synthesis’, discusses the merits and demerits of conducting university entrance examinations or tests separate from terminating assessments leading to school certification. In accordance with the unifying theme of the two volumes, the editors come down in favour of systems in which external end-of-school examinations obviate the need for an additional layer of standardised testing between school and university, which strengthens the upper secondary school tier through its focus on secondary-tertiary alignment. The next few decades will reveal how compelling this line of argument has been to decision makers.

This book will be of considerable interest to scholars and practitioners in the fields of strategic educational planning and high-stakes assessment and examinations, particularly those with a comparative focus.


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