English |  Español |  Français |  Italiano |  Português |  Русский |  Shqip

Master Thesis Reader - Research and Innovation in Higher Education

Merit and student selecting in higher education

Luís Carvalho


In Europe, participation in higher education increased remarkably in the last century, from around 1% in 1910 (Ringer, 2004) to approximately 60% in 2007 (UNESCO, 2009). During the expansionist period, governments favored managerial and funding practices (new public management) stressing market principles, efficiency and competition to accommodate the increasing costs of expansion. Particularly, institutions have been increasingly pressured to compete among each other creating a hierarchical stratification of the system, where the most prominent gain more capacity to attract funding and students (Marginson, 2004, 2009). When competition becomes so influential, a contentious dilemma arises concerning the organization of admissions putting institutions under conflicting forces between a social pressure to guarantee chances of participation for all and, alternatively, the determination to admit the best applicants. This quandary has been epitomized as a tension between competing notions of equality and merit (Goastellec, 2010), equity and merit (Munene, 2002) and meritocracy and fairness (Nahai, 2013). The resolution of this tension, as Goastellec (2010) suggests, will become increasingly a responsibility for institutions.

As this tension remains a subject of academic dispute, the issue is of particular significance for Portuguese public universities since they lack autonomy to choose their own students. In a country where participation increased from around 50 000 students to nearly 400.000 in just forty years, new challenges have emerged in terms of inequalities of access, as several reports have shown (Amaral & Magalhães, 2009; Magalhães, Amaral, & Tavares, 2009; OECD, 2012; Schnitzer, Klaus, 2005). Recent studies also raised serious concerns about fairness in Portuguese admissions, since secondary grades have been shown to be inflated in private schools, making access more dependent on students’ economic status (Nata, Pereira, & Neves, 2014). However, a central question that subsists concerns how can Universities implement a selection by merit without ignoring their larger social-oriented goals?

In most countries admission’s criteria are predominantly related with individual academic performance (Cremonini, Leisyte, Weyer, & Vossensteyn, 2011; Edwards, Coates, & Friedman, 2012). The way universities operationalize their criteria of selection, nonetheless, varies across different contexts. Past research lacks empirical studies that explore how academics define the goals and selection criteria in universities. As far as it was able to find, few studies considered the views of academics in relation with admissions in universities. Nahai (2013) analyzed admissions in the University of Oxford interviewing admissions tutors and found a unanimous support for a meritocratic selection. Similarly, Killgore (2009) interviewed admission officers in elite American colleges and concluded that institutions produce their own concepts of merit in contingency with their market position and organizational goals. However, research focused on the views of academics about merit in the context of admissions remains unsatisfactory since the most relevant studies have been focused in settings where universities select their own students (US, UK), targeting admission officers, a professional group that does not represents the most generalizable testimonial of academics.

This paper examines how academics in the most selective university in Portugal perceive the underlying rationales of admission. The notion of merit will be used as a guiding analytical concept to examine their views. The results from this research should make an important contribution to support policy reform to address institutions’ desire for increased autonomy in admissions, a debate also raised in other European countries (Cremonini et al., 2011). The findings will also provide greater insight into a larger societal debate concerning allocation of public goods, addressing social demands for fairer admissions and increased participation of underrepresented groups (Nahai, 2013).

Admissions in Portuguese universities

Access to Portuguese universities follows a centralized process organized by the Ministry of Education that annually sets a fixed number of vacancies for each programme (numerus clausus). Candidates enter an annual competition to enter in university, even though the involvement of universities in admissions is very limited. The allocation of vacancies takes in consideration students’ preferences (up to six can be listed). Then, admissions follow an automatic and centralized procedure that ranks candidates according with their entrance classification that derives from a pondered average between grades of secondary education (at least 50%) and the results from national examinations in core disciplines (at least 35%). A small proportion of vacancies is earmarked for specific groups (e.g., disable students, military). There is also an alternative entrance route for candidates older than 23 years, and for these candidates universities can do their own selection. Although this system has been used in the last 15 years, recent research has raised some issues to consider. Fonseca, Dias, Sá, & Amaral (2014) questioned the consequences of numerus clausus policy by describing a “wave of dissatisfaction” that characterizes an admission system “based on the assumption that there is a positive correlation between the aptitude of students to master a certain subject and develop a successful career and their application grades.” (p. 146). The authors argued that since programmes have limited vacancies, those that cannot enter in the most desired ones (candidates with high grades) enroll in ‘second-line’ options, reducing the chances to enter in these courses for other students that aspired them in the first place. The consequence of this admission puzzle is an increasing number of unmotivated students in several programmes. In another study, Nata, Pereira, & Neves (2014) published a seminal paper describing an 11 year evolution of scores from Portuguese secondary education schools. With a disaggregation of results for public and private settings, the authors concluded that: independent private schools inflate their students' scores when compared to both public and government-dependent private schools. It is also plain that this discrepancy is not uniformly distributed across grades: rather, it is higher where scores matter most in the competition for the scarce places available in public higher education. (p.18). This study provides strong evidence that to enter in Portuguese universities, students do not compete with the same chances of admission because those with financial resources to afford private education have their grades considerably inflated in the private sector, increasing their chances to enroll in the most desired programmes.


The research data in this paper was drawn from 12 semi-structured interviews conducted with academics from the University of Porto, the most sought university in Portugal (Serviço de Melhoria Contínua, 2013). A convenience sample was selected in collaboration with the pedagogic council’s presidents from seven out of the 14 faculties of the University. There was a deliberate caution to select participants from both genders and from diverse disciplinary fields and faculties, acknowledging the existence of distinct cultures amongst disciplines, as Table 1 shows:

Code Gender Disciplinary Field  Faculty Academic Rank
1A M Natural and Health Sciences A Full professor
2A F Natural and Health Sciences A Full professor
3B M Engineering Sciences and Technology B Full professor
4B M Engineering Sciences and Technology B Associate professor
5C F Natural and Health Sciences C Associate professor
6D F Social Sciences D Full professor
7D F Social Sciences D Associate professor
8E M Social Sciences E Associate professor
9F M Humanities and Arts F Associate professor
10G F Humanities and Arts G Associate professor
11F M Humanities and Arts F Associate professor
12G F Humanities and Arts G Full professor

Table 1 – List of interviewees

Additionally, 8 participants held the position of programme director, 3 were presidents of the Pedagogic Council of the respective Faculty, and 1 was member of the General Board of the University. The participants of this study cannot be labeled as specialists in admissions because Portuguese universities do not select their own students. Nevertheless, all interviewees had extensive experience in teaching, research and/or administrative roles (e.g., participation in pedagogic and scientific councils, leadership positions). Particularly, this purposive sample favored the inclusion of programme directors. By statutory regulation, each undergraduate course has a programme director responsible for overlooking all curricular, scientific and organizational affairs related with each respective academic programme (Estatutos da Universidade do Porto, 2009).

The reduced sample, from a single institution, carries more difficulties in terms of generalization of the findings, however, the selected number of interviewees allowed a deeper analysis that would be impossible to conduct in a study of larger scale. To mitigate the lack of statistical representativeness, individuals from diverse disciplinary fields and academic ranks were selected, increasing the prospects of reaching some degree of generalization.

The interview included 12 open-ended questions covering topics such admission goals, criteria and instruments of admission. To check the pertinence and validity of each question, the interview guide was tested with two master’s candidates in the field of higher education and one professor (Killgore, 2009). To assure that academics’ views were mostly derived from spontaneous reflection the conduction of the interviews prioritized a relaxed and conversional approach to build trust and rapport (Kvale, 2008). The interviews were conducted by me in the first 3 weeks of May (2014).

Data analysis consisted of integral reading of all transcripts to produce the themes of analysis. Successive readings allowed to continuously refine the organization of data in search for recurring units of significance that could be structured thematically. The QSR International’s NVivo 10 qualitative data analysis software was used to improve the quality and reliability of the coding process. This process culminated with a coding system (Table 2) organized through main and sub-categories that summarized the views of academics towards admissions in public universities.

Key findings and Implications

The current study found that academics are concerned that two goals should be assured upon admission: (1) guarantee that candidates meet a set of core requirements that attest their preparedness to succeed in university, and (2) selection mechanisms do not favor or discriminate candidates by any arbitrary reasons. Additionally, there is a divide between academics views about what constitutes a fair process of admission.

Academics view on merit

There are common elements that characterize how academics define merit in the context of admission. First, all candidates should have a basic level of knowledge in the core disciplines associated with the pursued academic programme (e.g., an engineering candidate needs a “solid knowledge” on math). However, this is not the only requirement or even the most important. It is interesting to note that more than half of the participants consider academic credentials an insufficient indicator of candidates’ academic potential. Instead, academics support an admission system that targets certain competences and attitudes that do not necessarily relate with disciplinary content. Second, the most prominent result, academics highly prize students’ motivation to study in University. In a few cases this permanent inquisitiveness attitude and desire to learn is considered more determinant than academic credentials. Third, academics largely agree that candidates should have a set of general cognitive capacities that go beyond knowledge and disciplinary content, namely skills that can corroborate the capacity to reason and to be a critical thinker that are deemed as fundamental for a university candidate.

There are some explanations for these results. Zimdars, (2010) has discussed a homophily principle suggesting that academics have particular interest to teach students that share their own interests. This idea was recurrent in the interviews, where academics explicitly expressed the need to prioritize a specific profile of candidates, those that manifest a great motivation to be engaged in their studies. This preference for inquiring attitudes also shows that academics connect the goals of admission to safeguard the mission of the university as research institution (Goastellec, 2010).

The way academics operationalized merit can be explained by an Aristotelian teleological argumentation that proposes that an object or good in dispute should be distributed in utmost accordance with their purpose (telos). Following Sandel's (2010, p.188) example, if flutes were to be distributed, the best flute players should be rewarded since the purpose of a flute is to be well played. Analogously, academics endorse a distribution of placements in universities to those more capable of fully engaging in the fundamental activities of academic endeavor, as considered in Barnett's (1990, p. 202) idea of higher education: ‘higher education’ is essentially a matter of the development of the mind of the individual student. It is not just any kind of development that the idea points to. An educational process can be termed higher education when the student is carried on to levels of reasoning which make possible critical reflection on his or her experiences, whether consisting of propositional knowledge or of knowledge through action. These levels of reasoning and reflection are ‘higher’, because they enable the student to take a view (from above, as it were) of what has been learned. Simply, ‘higher education’ resides in the higher-order states of mind.

In addition, the great concern for motivation manifested by academics corroborates previous work from Fonseca, Dias, Sá, & Amaral (2014) that have demonstrated that a ‘wave of dissatisfaction’ populates many programmes in Portugal, causing an imbalance in the system since many candidates are unhappy with their final choice.
One question that needs to be raised is whether motivation can be truly assessed since it is a complex social construct that can follow different individual determinations. Most academics addressed motivation with a scholarly connotation, in relation to a desire to learn. However, it is not clear whether assessment of motivation upon admission can - or if it should even try - discern between more instrumental motivations, such as seeking a programme that will lead to a high salary, or, alternatively, a motivation more attuned with the academic values. Despite its importance, motivation poses complex questions since a display of motivation upon selection does not guarantee that students will keep it after enrolling (the logic works inversely). Moreover, while academics imparted on students the ‘responsibility’ to be motivated, studies from Tavares (2013) and Fonseca, Dias, Sá, & Amaral (2014) have shown that the problem also lies in the adequacy of the organization of the access national system, that should permit that students can enroll in their preferred options. Finally, lacking motivation and engagement during university cannot be only accountable to students, since academics also have the duty to prepare their lectures and activities in such a way that incentivizes - or at least does not discourages - students to be engaged.

The equity divide

Findings from this research corroborate the existence of an ongoing ideological debate between a selection that stresses opportunity for traditionally underrepresented groups and, alternatively, a selection that faces all candidates as equals, aiming to select best applicants. Even though all academics clearly support that selection should be focused in candidates’ attributes, and not in any ascritptive trait, there is a marked difference between their views on notions of fairness and equity, and ultimately on how social justice can be achieved.

An inclusive view

The majority of academics explicitly support an admission system that pays great attention to groups of students that may be at risk of exclusion from university. On the root of this inclusive perspective is the perception that large social inequalities undermine the chances of social mobility for candidates from certain economic and social backgrounds. Although academics’ concern for merit is vital, they recognize that some students have fewer chances to progress throughout the educational system, making these students less capable of achieving as high as other candidates with less life challenges. Therefore, mechanisms should be considered to level the field, not aiming to reduce quality standards of admission, but to take in consideration that many candidates may have higher potential to become good university students, despite their (culturally biased, and often lower) academic credentials.

The use of contextual data and positive discrimination is therefore seen as a possible compensation to tackle educational inequalities and imbalance of opportunities. Compensatory mechanisms are seen as a way to consider candidates’ merit in a fairer perspective, i.e. one that considers the context of candidates’ academic and personal progress and achievement, yet many academics have doubts and some degree of skepticism regarding implementation of such measures. A system concerned with equity is one that seeks to guarantee that everyone can have a chance to be selected.

An impartial view

Alternatively, some academics prioritize the need that admission systems do not benefit or discriminate anyone. Thus, the process of admission should treat all candidates equally, regardless their personal circumstances. Merit is seen in absolute terms, candidates either have it or not, and how candidates reach their credentials is not the critical element. Instead, the most crucial element is that applicants fulfill the entrance requirements. Academics’ support for an impartial admission is sustained by their believe that candidates adequacy for university should be manifested upon selection, even if they come from more disadvantaged backgrounds since the favoring students on the basis of class or economic background, would generate an unfair situation. Moreover, as admissions require selecting candidates from different parts of the country, academics argued, the objectivity and transparency of the admission criteria are fundamental to assure that all candidates are treated equally. A system concerned with equity is one that seeks that everyone faces the same system of criteria of admission. Findings also showed an agreement that the national exams are not an adequate proxy, neither for selection, nor for the educational development of students. This apprehension was translated in a desire to increase the freedom of universities to select their own students. However, this idea needs to be analyzed with caution, since logistic and technical requirements are not in place to assure a rigorous and effective process, capable of serving all students in the country. Moreover, there was a concern that if universities do their own selection, some can lower the standards of admission to tackle the increasing difficulties to attract students. A key policy priority should be to increase coordination between secondary and higher education. Doing so, some key issues as the adequacy of high-stakes national examination could be discussed, an also the university pretension for evaluation methods more focused on critical thinking and less on memorization.

Final remarks

This qualitative study examined the views of academics concerning student selection in public universities. Findings suggest that academic achievement, motivation and cognitive capacity constitute the primordial elements that define merit as perceived by academics. They also expressed a clear desire that candidates must be equipped with the necessary competences (high motivation to learn, intellectual acumen) to fully engage in the higher-order learning that defines university (Barnett, 1990). With a small sample, these results need to be interpreted with caution in terms of generalization. Still, the reduced number of interviewees made possible a richer data collection, with more space to explore depth and meaning in each testimonial (Killgore, 2009).

In most cases, the support for an admission system that uses merit as the central selection criterion, did not overcrowd the necessity to treat candidates as fairly as possible, also a crucial priority for academics. Nonetheless, they showed distinctive notions of fairness, one towards inclusion, comprising an explicitly concern for candidates at risk of being excluded from university and, alternatively, a determination that admission systems must treat equally and impartially all candidates, upholding academic merit as the only selection criteria. Academics also manifested dissatisfaction for the very limited capacity that Portuguese universities have to influence admissions and they expressed quite depreciatory views about the quality of pre-tertiary education and national entrance exams, arguing that they undermine students’ capacity to become critical and purposeful learners.

Taken together, these findings contribute to the current ongoing debate centered in organization of student selection in higher education by confirming challenges that remain to be solved. Thus, before trying to find a solution, it is crucial to clearly define and agree with the extension of the current problem, which - I argue with this study - includes two dimensions.

First, admission systems, either national or institutional, need to consider that selection by merit cannot dismiss the circumstances in which the student has achieved any academic credentials or another commensurable performance. In the absence of such effort, universities promote a distorted meritocratic selection that takes academic performance as an absolute manifestation of the qualities and potential of candidates, ignoring if such performance is an intrinsic manifestation of academic potential or a result of socio-economic privilege (Baez, 2006; Bridger, Shaw, & Moore, 2012; Nata et al., 2014).

Second, an admission system that tries to narrow down merit to a reduced number of indicators such results in standardized tests or grades, conducts universities to an inaccurate selection, incapable of targeting the most suitable candidates. As suggested by this study, many academics consider that academic credentials are often empty of meaning. Instead they give more value to motivation, inquisitiveness and critical thinking, dimensions that require a more comprehensive assessment of candidates’ academic potential.

To conclude, a key policy priority in the Portuguese access system should include the reform of a wasteful admission system that leaves so many programmes abounding with unmotivated candidates. Without the necessary sharpness to find academic potential and the sensitiveness to be socially inclusive, the system of access to public universities risks perpetuating a selection incapable of finding candidates with the necessary potential to solve the complex problems of our days, promote the progress in the sciences, culture and arts, and, ultimately, the advancement of a prosperous society, as it is a prerogative of University.


Amaral, A., & Magalhães, A. (2009), Between institutional competition and the search for equality of opportunities: Access of mature students. Higher Education Policy, 22(4): 505–521.

Baez, B. (2006), Merit and Difference. The Teachers College Record, 108(6): 996–1016.

Barnett, R. (1990), The Idea of Higher Education. Bristol: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.

Bridger, K., Shaw, J., & Moore, J. (2012), Fair Admissions to Higher Education, Research to describe the use of contextual data in admissions at a sample of universities and colleges in the UK.

Cremonini, L., Leisyte, L., Weyer, E., & Vossensteyn, H. (2011), Selection and matching in higher education. Enschede.

Edwards, D., Coates, H., & Friedman, T. (2012), A survey of international practice in university admissions testing. Higher Education Management and Policy, 24(1): 1–18.

Fonseca, M., Dias, D., Sá, C., & Amaral, A. (2014), Waves of (Dis)Satisfaction: Effects of the Numerus Clausus system in Portugal. European Journal of Education, 49(1): 144–158.

Goastellec, G. (2010), Merit and Equality: International Trends and Local Responses. In H. Eggins (Ed.), Access and Equity Comparative Perspectives (pp. 35–54). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Killgore, L. (2009), Merit and Competition in Selective College Admissions. The Review of Higher Education, 32(4): 469–488.

Kvale, S. (2008), Doing interviews. Sage.

Magalhães, A., Amaral, A., & Tavares, O. (2009), Equity, Access and Institutional Competition. Tertiary Education and Management, 15(1): 35–48. 

Marginson, S. (2004), Competition and Markets in Higher Education: a “glonacal” analysis. Policy Futures in Education, 2(2): 175.

Marginson, S. (2009), The limits of market reform in higher education (pp. 1–18).

Munene, I. I. (2002), University academics: demographic, role structure characteristics and attitudes towards merit and equity – a Kenyan case study. Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 7(3): 247–272.

Nahai, R. N. (2013), Is meritocracy fair? A qualitative case study of admissions at the University of Oxford. Oxford Review of Education, 39(5): 681–701.

Nata, G., Pereira, M., & Neves, T. (2014), Unfairness in access to higher education: a 11 year comparison of grade inflation by private and public secondary schools in Portugal. Higher Education, 1–24.

OECD. (2012), Education at a Glance 2012: Highlights. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/eag_highlights-2012-en.

Ringer, F. (2004), Admission. In W. Rüegg (Ed.), A history of the University in, Europe, Vol. III, Universities in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (1800-1945) (pp. 233–267). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sandel, M. J. (2010), Justice: What’s the right thing to do? Macmillan.

Schnitzer, Klaus, and E. M. (2005), Eurostudent 2005 Social and Economic Conditions of Student Life in Europe 2005. Hannover.

Tavares, O. (2013), Routes towards Portuguese higher education: students’ preferred or feasible choices? Educational Research, 55(1): 99–110.

Teixeira, P., Rosa, M. J., & Amaral., A. (2006), A Broader Church? Expansion, Access and Cost- Sharing in Portuguese Higher Education. In and H. V. P. Teixeira, B. Johnstone, M. Rosa (Ed.), Cost-Sharing and Accessibility in Higher Education: A Fairer Deal? (pp. 241–264). Springer.

UNESCO. (2009), Global Education Digest 2009 Comparing Education Statistics Across the World. Montreal.

Zimdars, A. (2010), Fairness and undergraduate admission: a qualitative exploration of admissions choices at the University of Oxford. Oxford Review of Education, 36(3): 307– 323.

There has been error in communication with Booktype server. Not sure right now where is the problem.

You should refresh this page.