Beware of doing Hebrew A-level

A girl was unfairly rejected by a university because she studied the language of the nation of her birth.

By Geoffrey Alderman, November 6, 2008

At the beginning of this year, a young lady living in London - I will call her Ofra but this is not her real name - applied to the University of Westminster to study for a bachelor's degree. Westminster offered her a place, on condition that she obtained an A grade and two Bs at GCE Advanced level. That was the offer - an A and two Bs. Nothing was said about the subjects in which these grades had to be obtained, and there was no intimation that a pass in a particular subject would be discounted. In the event, Ofra obtained an A and two C grades. She had clearly not met Westminster's conditions.

Or had she? This question must be asked - and Ofra asked it - because universities are at liberty to accept grades lower than those made in the formal offer letter. Minimum entry grades are often pitched high for purely public-relations purposes. Tough entry requirements look good in prospectuses, but what actually happens when individual results are considered may be very different.

So Ofra asked the relevant admissions tutor whether, in spite of her poorer than expected results, she might nonetheless take up the offer of a place. The admissions tutor revealed that the minimum entry requirement for this course was in fact not an A and two Bs but, rather, three passes at grade C. So why had Ofra been refused a place? The admissions tutor did not beat about the bush:

"The reason [the admissions tutor wrote in an email to Ofra on 14 August last] why you were declined is that your mother tongue is deemed to be Hebrew because of your Israeli nationality and we do not count A-grades in mother tongue languages of the applicant."

When I had recovered from the shock of reading this astonishing email I asked myself a series of questions.

First, what on earth had Ofra's nationality (she has in fact lived in the UK since the age of three) to do with her university application? Second, if in fact Westminster discounts A-grades in "mother tongue languages" why was Ofra not told this in advance? Third, does this apparent rule extend to English-born students? If I get an A in English A-level, will Westminster disregard this because English is my mother tongue?

My questions did not end there. Ofra challenged the decision to exclude her. Back came the following reply:
"Even if you have lived in the UK since the age of 3, Hebrew is the language you will have used most of or a lot of the time at home, as it is your mother's first language. Unless I am mistaken, this would set you at an immediate advantage over students who had selected a language A Level as a second language without any assistance from home."

Leaving aside entirely the outrageous assumptions reflected in this arrogant response, I am bound to ask how far Westminster extends this discrimination. I mean, if a child of mine applied there to study history, would the university discount any A-Level pass in that subject on the grounds that the child must have benefited from having a father who was a professor of history (as I am)?

And what are the implications of the Westminster policy for the teaching of Hebrew at A Level, not merely for Israeli students but for Jewish students generally? My wife once lived in Israel and speaks fluent Hebrew. Would a child of ours be given the Westminster treatment on these grounds too?

One has only to ponder these questions for a few moments to appreciate the gross unfairness and blatant prejudice reflected in the manner in which Ofra has been treated - to say nothing of the legal implications.

Ofra has now written formally to Westminster's vice-chancellor; the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (whose Code of Practice stipulates that university admissions procedures must be "fair, clear and explicit") is taking an interest in the matter; and Ofra's MP is so angry (he tells me) that he may raise the issue on the floor of the House of Commons.

But there is another disturbing aspect to this story. When it first became clear that Westminster was not minded to accept Ofra's grade A in Hebrew, she approached her secondary school for advice. The school appears to have dragged its feet and, according to Ofra, berated her for making a fuss.

This establishment was, I am very sorry to say, a Jewish faith school.

Last updated: 11:12am, November 6 2008