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Where next for admissions: soft PQA or hard clearing?

  • 31 January 2019
  • By Chris Ramsey

A guest blog kindly contributed by Chris Ramsey, Headmaster of Whitgift School and chair of the Universities committee at HMC, a professional body for Headmasters and Headmistresses of Independent Schools.

Whenever you review something big  – a school curriculum or an admissions philosophy, or an Irish border – you always have the same fundamental question. Do you decide what is right first and make the practicalities fit, or do you limit your ambitions to what will fit without too much disruption to the practicalities. We’re reviewing the junior curriculum in my school at the moment, so the dilemma is very much on my mind. Decide what you really want first, say some – be visionary! – and we’ll just make it possible. Decide on your limitations and capacity for change, say others – be practical! – or it won’t work.

I thought of this too when seeing that PQA (post-qualifications applications) has reared its head. Again. It was the first thing I was ever asked to comment on when I joined the HMC universities group, and even then it was a hoary old chestnut. Can’t we leave it alone?

At the moment, the vast majority of sixth formers apply to higher education, through UCAS, during their final year at school. They receive up to five ‘offers’ which are in the main ‘conditional’ on certain exam grades, which they may or may not get. The unstated assumption – in fact the premise on which the whole system is built – is that the vast majority of candidates will indeed ‘get their offer’ and hence their place. But the offers are mainly made purely on the basis of the young person’s application … and his or her predicted grades.

And here’s one of the problems. A report published by the then government in 2009 showed that just over half – 51% – of school A Level predictions were accurate. In 2018, according to UCAS, 76.8% of starting undergraduates had missed their predicted grades by at least one grade. Now of course this coincides with a time when universities are keen to recruit, but it does seem to cast doubt over the validity of a ‘conditional’ offer.

Add to that the well-documented rise in unconditional offers, and you can begin to see why commentators are questioning the survival of the traditional way of applying. No other country, say critics, has this absurd application system, wasting as it does acres of sixth form time in applications before the student even knows where he or she stands in terms of attainment. But, say others, any changes would be hard to implement given our exam and academic year structures, and they’d harm fragile social progress.

Well the Universities and Colleges Union has always been in favour of PQA, so it’s no surprise that its latest report restates the arguments in favour: waiting till students know their results allows them to concentrate on doing the best they can, avoids applications which are way off target, leads, in short to a game played by universities and schools in which those in the know get ahead, and those with less access to advice lose out, or are relegated to less prestigious universities than they might otherwise get to.

UCAS itself used to be pro-change, but it has been pretty pleased in recent years with its promotion of ‘adjustment’ – the system whereby students can trade ‘up’ their applications to a ‘better’ university if they do specially well in their A levels, as opposed to simply ‘trading down’ in the old clearing system if they mess their A levels up. This, say UCAS, is in effect a kind-of-PQA for those who would benefit from it. Soft PQA, in fact.

But there are more fundamental questions.

We have a selective HE system …rightly or wrongly. Being selective has made our universities the best in the world, it can be argued, but to be reliably selective, we need a selection method that works and is transparent.  Surely you select your students, if you are a selecting university, from the cohort of those who actually qualify, not those whose schools say they might.

In principle PQA solves this. Students could use Year 13 to investigate, draw up short lists and so forth, but only actually apply to university once results are known – and universities could of course adjust their standards based on the available talent. So bang goes the fiction of wannabe-selective uni saying everyone needs A*s, when we all know folk get in on lower grades.

It sounds seductive.

I do have doubts about the proposals the UCU have put forward. For one, students would need rapid advice after A Level results. You can see how a well-endowed school could have this available in July or August, but would cash-strapped state schools struggle? Well, perhaps this might be a lightbulb moment for both sectors: local hubs, where independent schools could – maybe even were required to – share expertise.

Then there is a definite need for exceptions – medical courses and some elite universities require interviews to sift the huge number of applications, but surely they could still operate as they now do, and indeed take out a small chunk of the applications ahead of the rush.

What I personalIy don’t buy, is the time argument. Critics say students and teachers just wouldn’t have time under a PQA system to process applications. But surely the same amount of time will be spent on investigation as now, and students could have applications ready to go, especially if they were confident of their upcoming results.

Nor do I buy the most awkward objection, that a PQA system would bring more disadvantage to the already disadvantaged. It is the socially and educationally disadvantaged – those in poor-performing schools, low participation neighbourhoods, non-HE families – who currently most often go lower in their aspirations than they might, as they play safe with predictions and disproportionally accept unconditional offers, gratefully grasping the safe option when they might aim higher. They are the ones who actually might do better if they hold out.

And I see an extra advantage in lancing the re-marks boil. With raw marks available, universities would no longer require re-marks for cliff edge conditional candidates. Since grades are unreliable anyway, OFQUAL tells us, putting less emphasis on a monolithic letter grade and its match (or not) to a prediction, has to be a good thing.

So, to me, PQA seems pretty attractive. The wasted time of applications you won’t reach, the ridiculous game of Unconditional Offers, the absurdity of predicted grades. How tempting to sweep it all away.

Maybe not now, but soon, we ought to have the courage to try. So well done UCU in keeping it on the agenda. We need that kind of vision.

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