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New HEPI report demonstrates that moving away from the use of predicted grades in university admissions could harm, rather than benefit, fair admissions

  • 18 March 2021

The Higher Education Policy Institute have published a new collection of essays on the future of undergraduate university admissions.

Where next for university admissions? (HEPI Report 136), edited by Rachel Hewitt covers topics including:

  • the arguments for and against post-qualification admissions;
  • the role of contextual admissions;
  • comparisons to international systems; and
  • the lessons to be learnt from the 2020 A-Level results cycle.

The diverse contributors come from Universities UK, UCAS, the Sutton Trust, Edge Hill University, the University of Edinburgh, the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA), Durham University, the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), The University Guys and the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON). 

Rachel Hewitt, HEPI’s Director of Policy and Advocacy and the editor of the new collection, said:

Today’s report highlights that the future of university admissions is more complex than may initially be thought. While there is wide-ranging support for post-qualification admissions from Universities UK, UCAS, school and university leaders and students, whether this should be post-qualification applications, decisions or offers is still up for debate. There are also some questions to be asked about what issue a post-qualifications system is trying to address, given the existence and growing strength of the Clearing system, which already allows a “post-qualification” option. 

The report also provides a helpful insight on some of the potential unintended consequences in changes to the admissions system. While concerns are often raised about the role that predicted grades play, Mark Corver demonstrates how making offers from exam-awarded, rather than predicted, grades could actually be detrimental to fair admissions. 

As we publish this piece, the Government consultation on changing university admissions remains open and the direction of travel remains uncertain. I hope, at such a critical moment in the debate, that this report will help to shape and influence what the future of university admissions could look like.

In her chapter reflecting ten years on from the last PQA review, Mary Curnock Cook, non-executive director across the education sector and former Chief Executive of UCAS, writes:

Wholesale change to a post-result system risks removing much of what is desirable in the current system for the majority of students while providing only unproven benefits (and possibly new risks) for the minority for whom change is thought to be desirable.

In his chapter on predicted grades and university admissions, Dr Mark Corver, Founder of DataHE, writes:

The belief that predicted grades harm equality is not supported by the data. The pattern is mixed across under-represented groups, but overall predicted grades are probably more an aid than a hinderance. Many obstacles stand in the way of under-represented groups getting to more selective universities, but the use of predicted grades in the admissions system is not one of them.

Policymakers who plan to take this risk [of changing the existing system] on the basis of failings in predicted grades should take care the problems they want to solve are in fact real.

In their chapter on rethinking merit in pursuit of fairer admissions, Professor Vikki Boliver and Dr Mandy Powell, write:

It is understandable and appropriate that universities should engage with contextualised admissions in a somewhat cautious manner given that systems to support the learning of contextually disadvantaged students are still being developed. But it is equally important that universities set an intention to become progressively bolder in their use of contextual data to inform admissions decisions over time in the pursuit of distributive fairness goals.

In her chapter on Scottish admissions, Rebecca Gaukroger, Director of Student Recruitment and Admissions at University of Edinburgh, writes:

Most obviously, student number controls have kept a lid on the participation rate in Scotland and meant, even with the “demographic dip” in 18-year olds, demand has broadly exceeded supply. Pre-Brexit, EU students were treated on the same basis as Scots, competed with Scots for limited funded places and like Scots had no tuition fees to pay. In 2020, 14 per cent of all applications to Scottish universities were from the EU; twice the rate in the rest of the UK. 

The interests of applicants in Scotland are distinct from 18-year old applicants in England. From the perspective of most Scottish applicants to Scottish universities – approximately 95 per cent of Scots who go to university do so in Scotland – a greater concern is not the opacity of the market, or the machinations of the UCAS process, but straightforwardly how to get in to university at all.

In his chapter on post-qualification admissions and social mobility, James Turner, Chief Executive of Sutton Trust, writes:

Schools are generally supportive of the reform [of admissions] in principle, and the tide seems to be turning in the university sector. Importantly, [our] recent polling suggests that the COVID generation of young people want to see change too. Even among the class of 2020, who ended up with the highest grades on record, two-thirds support a move to PQA, not least as their own predictions still diverged from their eventual, largely teacher-assessed, grades. And many from working-class backgrounds say they would have made different choices had they applied to higher education after they knew their results.

Summer 2020 brought into sharp relief how high stakes admissions decisions are, and how much a place in higher education still means to many. Like anything worth doing, making PQA work is not plain sailing: there are some rough waters ahead. But the prize is potentially worth it, especially for those young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who, in a terrible year, have had the very rawest deal of all.

In his chapter on post-qualification admissions, John Cater, Vice-Chancellor at Edge Hill University, writes:

If you plan to train to teach or work in the NHS, you will normally be interviewed, face-to-face, by both an academic and an active practitioner. The University that employs me has 7,000 applications for Health programmes every year, and the ability to test a candidate’s commitment and capacity for a challenging career cannot happen in the summer window. Nor can it happen without a wholesale restructure of the academic contract.

Notes for Editors:

  1. The Higher Education Policy Institute was established in 2002 to help shape the higher education debate with evidence. It is the UK’s only independent think tank devoted to higher education. HEPI is a non-partisan charity funded by higher education institutions and other organisations that wish to see a vibrant policy debate.

1 comment

  1. Pete says:

    Mark Corver’s analysis is a very good attempt at rebutting the case for post-qualification admissions.

    However, one would also need to factor in how universities utilise predicted grades to get the full picture. The conclusions of the analysis that post-qualification admissions are likely counter-productive is driven by an assumption that universities take predicted grades at face value and e.g. assume that a candidate within the top 10% of the predicted A-level distribution will be within the top 10% of the actual A-level distribution. This is incorrect.

    Universities know A-level predictions are unreliable and so give high weight to GCSE grades to verify A-level predictions, use statistical discrimination – someone from an advantaged background from a private or grammar school who is predicted high A-level grades is statistically far more likely to achieve them than a disadvantaged student from a comprehensive or FE college – and give high rate to other factors they take as indications of likely A-level performance.

    There is also individual unfairness – some schools and teachers are less likely to over-predict than others meaning that their students are disadvantaged.

    I think that resolving this requires either some form of post-qualification admissions or some form of external exam to improve prediction quality like modular A-levels used to provide. I definitely would not have got to the university I ended up at in the current system as I would not have had an excellent set of module results to counterbalance my relatively weak GCSE results, make my predicted grades a lot higher than they otherwise would have been and encourage me to be a lot more ambitious in my university applications than I would have been and my (grammar) school were urging me to be even with excellent module grades.

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