Should university admission be by lottery?

Back in the 1980s, some on the left used to call for university admission to be conducted by lottery. Anyone who applied for a course would be selected at random. The left thought it would make it easier for working-class people, who do relatively poorly in admissions systems based on academic merit, to go to university.

At the time, I thought lottery selection of university students was a crazy idea. But now I am not so sure, and nor is the University of Sydney medical school, which is considering using a ballot to choose its students.

The University of Sydney’s problem is that the different admissions tests used for medical schools don’t seem better than each other in predicting future academic performance (here is one study, pdf). This is not an isolated issue. Other published studies, based on larger groups of students, have found correlations usually of around .3 or .4 between school and university academic results. That’s a lot more than 0, but also a lot less than 1. Several researchers have found that, for a given Year 12 score, students from standard government schools do better in their first year of university studies than students from private schools and selective government schools.

So if getting the best students is the goal, our admissions systems are only modestly good mechanisms for achieving it. Effectively, there are so many unobserved factors affecting results that, as a means of selecting the best students, our current methods already contain a random element.
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