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.
But there is an even larger problem. It’s not clear that we should always be so worried about only selecting students whose academic peformance is likely to be the best. Other qualities are just as relevant, if not more so, out in the workforce (though medicine has tried to take this into account). Being very bright can actually be a disadvantage, given the drudgery involved in most occupations.
I wouldn’t favour a completely random process, but if universities set a minimum threshold below which a student was likely to struggle, choosing among those above it by lottery would not necessarily be any worse than the current semi-random system based on a spurious ranking. It might ultimately be better, if it lets in to some highly-competitive courses people who have done something more in their teens than studied very hard. And it could be fairer, going back to the left’s original rationale, if it spreads the rewards of high-prestige courses more broadly than the current system, which benefits most those who, with their high intelligence and often affluent parents, have already won life’s lottery.