Like all of the students whose studies it governs, the UBC Vancouver Senate found itself busy during the last exam period. At their meeting on Dec 16, Senate approved a new admissions policy, J-50, which allows the Senate Admissions Committee to adjust the admissions averages of incoming high school students based on where they originate from.

In practice, all this policy does in the near term is add 2% to the entrance average of anyone coming from Alberta. However, the policy is written broadly that it would allow the Senate Admissions Committee to introduce these types of adjustments for any jurisdiction outside of BC/Yukon at any point in the future. Which, in reality, is only formalizing certain admissions practices that have been happening out of necessity for a long time.

This policy was originally brought to Senate at its November meeting pertaining only to students from Alberta, but was withdrawn to be re-written in a more general way to include everywhere outside of BC, and to better conform with a new way of writing Senate policies. (At the previous meeting in October, Senate, under the guidance of Science Associate Dean Paul Harrison, passed a new way of writing its own policies.)

So what is so special about Albertan students (besides the fact that the Senate vice-chair is one) that make them worthy of an extra little bump in their entrance average? First and foremost, the way their curriculum is structured is different than BC’s. In a nutshell, the committee that developed the policy outlined the motivation:

Comparison of Alberta and BC secondary school grading scales shows that a letter grade of ‘A’ is achieved in Alberta secondary schools at 80%, whereas in BC, an ‘A’ is achieved at 86%. The working group’s analysis of grade distribution, obtained via the BC Ministry of Education and the Government of Alberta Education websites, shows that roughly the same proportion of graduates fall within the ‘A’ band in both educational jurisdictions. For example, in 2003, 27.6% of Alberta students who took Math 30 (senior year mathematics) achieved an ‘A’ in the course (final grade between 80% and 100%); in BC, 27.1% of students in Principles of Math 12 achieved an ‘A’ (final grade between 86% and 100%). While approximately the same percentage of students achieve a letter grade of ‘A’ in Math in Alberta as in BC, Alberta students will present lower percentage grades in the course. Such similarities are also observed among other senior year courses presented by Alberta and BC students for admission to UBC. The working group’s findings indicated that by failing to consider the details of the indigenous grading scale, the University may be losing a number of strong applicants from Alberta.

Full Document: Report on Review of Admission Policies

While it’s one thing to recognize that the curriculum differences exist and that it may be causing inequity in the admissions process, how best to institute a solution is another matter altogether. The committee gathered data from Alberta students and compared entrance averages to sessional averages after their first year at UBC. It was found that on average, Alberta students perform about as well in university as BC students whose entrance average is 1.5-2.0% higher than the Alberta students’. For better or worse, the analysis was done using high school average as a predictor of success at UBC.

Which brings us to the second special thing about Albertans: there are many of them at UBC. This type of analysis is only possible if there is a sample size large enough to make it meaningful. It’s likely that discrepancies also exist between other Canadian provincial high school curricula and that of BC, but it may not be possible to determine what kind of correction is necessary to bring more fairness to the admissions process if there are not enough students to examine. “The new policy is designed such that when we have such information and sufficient data for a given jurisdiction, this policy can be applied,” said Sonia Purewal, at-large student senator who sat on this particular working group. Senate tends to be a fairly cautious body, and likes to be fairly certain about what they are doing. Senator and math professor Richard Anstee, who chaired the working group, spoke at length about the extent and validity of the statistical analysis Senate undertook while formulating this policy. He remarked that not only did it remain fairly consistent over a number of years, it did not change much as the students progressed to their second, third and fourth years at UBC.

One of the things student senators hammered on during the meeting was wording around “educational jurisdiction.” Their chief concern was how this related to the potential consideration of individual schools as educational jurisdictions. The wording remained unchanged in the end, partly for bureaucratic reasons, and partly because nobody had any better way of wording things (protip: if you want to take issue with the way something is worded, make sure you have some sort of alternative to propose in its place). However, it did lead to some interesting discussion, especially around the issue of international admissions.

While the only substantive change in passing J-50 is its effect on Alberta students, the policy is already a big part of the foundation of international admissions and always has been out of necessity. Although no one can cite any previous Senate policy allowing adjustments to admissions averages for international students, simply the number of grading systems out there makes it a necessity. If you have an international student coming in with a transcript reading full of As and Bs, another student coming with percentages out of 100, and another boasting GPA figures, how can you most fairly evaluate these applicants? It’s less an adjustment issue in this case as it is one of translation. The policy allows for this, saying that in the absence of enough data to do a rigourous statistical analysis, grades can be adjusted (ie. translated) on a case-by-case basis by Undergraduate Admissions Office.

Policies like this one will only affect prospective students near the cutoff average; students with outstanding transcripts, regardless of where they come from, should not feel the effects of these various adjustments. Adjustments like those in J-50, along with the increasing use of broad-based admissions (using more criteria than simply grades to assess applicants), while developed with the noble goal of fair admissions in mind, are also making the process more time-consuming and opaque–two features which grade 12 students will not find desirable.


6 Comments so far

  1. Charles Menzies on January 4, 2010 4:53 pm

    It would seem to me that the first priority for undergraduate admissions should be BC students. Then, if there is space other Canadian students, and then if there is still space non-Canadians. The education infrastructure is paid for, primarily, by BC residents and it should be BC residents who have priority for admissions. At the graduate level I can see the possibility of the argument for considering a wider pool of students -but at the undergraduate level our place as a public institutions should be to ensure that every potential BC student has an opportunity to attend the university of their choice first and then start allowing others to attend.

  2. Alex Lougheed on January 5, 2010 5:50 am

    I’d like to respectfully disagree with Charles on this one.

    I’m proud of the fact that in Canada our schooling system (excepting Québec) operates on a portable basis. It’s good for the country overall that we allow for this flexibility and competition. Admissions in education is founded on meritocracy, and this adjustment means the best Canadian students can attend the best Canadian schools.

    Furthermore, by introducing more out-of-province students, the University and Province stand to generate more money by having new residents contributing to the tax base around.

    Having more international and out of province students also creates a diverse, inclusive environment on campus where perspectives perhaps not seen in Canada can be accessed much easier. It would also increase the likelihood of immigration to BC by the best and brightest around the world, and as a result brings the province, and country, up on the world stage.

    That all said, some more federal dollars would provide a good incentive to ensure this portability remains in place.

  3. Charles Menzies on January 5, 2010 7:52 am

    When the federal government used to pay 70% plus of the cost of post-secondary (one needs go back to the late 1970s to find that point in time) the idea of being open to all and any may well make some sense.

    The rhetoric of meritocracy and competition simply reinforces social inequality and privilege. For example, in the City University of New York system from the late 1960s through to the mid 1990s the university operated under an open admissions policy and for most of that time didn’t even charge tuition (are very much tuition). Guess what, colleges like City College of the City University of New York in east Harlem with one of the poorest and most disadvantaged student populations managed to have one of the highest rates of placement into professional programmes such as law, medicine, dentistry, etc in the entire US. Now keep in mind that this was done with an open admissions policy -i.e. (Horror) no standards of excellence. What do you think was happening? At the core was a perspective that anyone, with proper support can learn and that furthermore education was a right not a privilege. If one does believe in a meritocracy than one will do what they can to undermine the privilege that status and wealth provide.

    And, if we want a diverse and inclusive environment let’s start by ensuring that those marginalized by history and privilege in BC have access to a solid education before we start inviting the privileged from other parts of the country or the world.

    During the brief moment of post-secondary expansion in the late 60s/70s a good many of us native BC’ers (and other excluded folk in other parts of the country) had the chance to be the first of our families to get a post-secondary education. This was possible because of a belief that any person with proper support could achieve and that education was a right, not a privilege. In the world of so-called excellence that we live in today we are engaged in reducing access through competition and are thereby reinforcing privilege.

    It would seem to me that being the best school would mean that one can create great students and amazing learners. Being the best school shouldn’t be about trying to cream to high school performers from elsewhere (this is where I add that high school graduation grades are a poor indicator of post-secondary achievement).

    I’m proud of my BC education. I am proud that there was a public education in BC that a working class, first nations student like myself could gain a foothold in and I’m proud that I am one of a few who actually made it to be hired in my home province. Let’s hope that we find ways to make it easier for others to gain a similar foothold, not make it harder for them.

  4. Spencer Keys on January 5, 2010 10:14 pm

    Torben Drewes at Trent University has been working on an interesting paper about differences between high school GPA by province and how those grades compare to PISA literacy scores. He did a presentation at the Canadian Economics Association conference in May and found some of the differences to be very substantial. Nova Scotia, for instance, is a province where approximately half of high school graduates receive 80% or above, whereas in Alberta it’s closer to one quarter. However, Alberta consistently does better on PISA scores than Nova Scotia does.

    Dr. Drewes’s paper hasn’t been published yet but the findings a) support the Senate’s decision, broadly speaking, and b) suggest there’s much more to the question than simply grade distribution across the sample.

  5. Emily on October 5, 2010 2:46 pm

    This is a definitely a well deserved bump for Alberta high school students. Think, we have to write diploma exams that are worth half of our grade?–pretty intimidating, right? It makes it a lot harder for us to match high averages of other Canadian students who do not have to write these exams! Obviously, ones who take the diploma are going to do worse, but we are just as capable and deserve an equal chance to get into UBC!

  6. James on November 3, 2010 12:19 am

    To simplify, let us suppose the following:
    BC has 10% students scoring between 86-100%.
    Alberta has 10% students scoring between 80-100%.

    First, does BC and Alberta has the same level of exams?
    If yes, BC could have 10% scoring between 86-100 while Alberta may only have 5% scoring between 86-100.
    Alberta would have to score less than 10% on their 86-100 range because it is unreasonable to assume that 0% scored within 80-85.
    This seem to suggest BC had more students who scored in the higher grade range than Alberta, so why does this lead to more admission of Alberta students when BC has more smarter kids?

    There is also demographic differences at play here. Immigrants, especially from Asian countries that come from a heavy background of domestic competition of education at all levels, are more likely to settle in BC over Alberta. Vancouver has been listed the 4th best city to live and is the destination for many immigrants, at least over Alberta where the cold and the lack of variety of food choices would not be adequate to fit these newcomers.

    Long story short, more Chinese and Indians = more competition in school which leads to higher quality students. What I mean by this is that it’s like scaling. One class is full of lazy kids who scored an average of 50%. Another class had high achieving students who scored a class average of 80%. However both classes must average to 65%, even though the latter is a smarter group than the first. It is not in my interest to stereotype specific race as being smart, but to say that there’s a lot to consider when looking at simple statistical numbers like the one that was introduced.

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