This blog was kindly contributed by The Fair Access Coalition. The Fair Access Coalition is a group of the heads of leading third sector organisations engaged in activities to support access and progression, including the Access Project (Nathan Sansom), Brightside (Laura Gray), The Brilliant Club (Anne-Marie Canning), Causeway Education (Sam Holmes), Impetus (Eleanor Harrison), IntoUniversity (Rachel Carr), Push (Johnny Rich), upReach (John Craven) and Villiers Park (Rae Tooth). You can find them on Twitter @nathanrsansom , @amcanning , @SamHolmes_edu , @EllieJHarrison , @JohnnySRich , @upReachJCraven and @raetooth.
HEPI’s newest paper, What next for university admissions?, is a valuable contribution to the debate and we are comforted to see that all its contributors see that greater fairness – particularly for those for whom the education system is too often unfair – should be the driving force behind any reform.
As a coalition of organisations on the front line of work promoting access to higher education, our constant mission is to promote fairness and opportunity. From our vantage point, we witness daily the stories of young people who are disadvantaged, discouraged or discarded by the system.
The current system is far from perfectly fair. The reliance on predicted grades disadvantages the disadvantaged, but, as Mark Corver’s contribution effectively argues, such issues are not as simple as they at first appear. Meanwhile, the Clearing process encourages rushed decisions, but does stop some applicants from being lost to the process. Reforms that might do away with one inequity may well replace it with something worse.
On the other hand, the current system has many merits. It has been tested by the mass growth and marketisation of higher education, qualification changes, capped and uncapped student numbers and demographic peaks and troughs. Its failings have sometimes been exposed and, mostly, it has adapted and evolved.
The case for changing it relies on being able to have confidence that any replacement will be more fit for purpose, that its unfairness will not be worse. The risk of failure will be high. For a generation whose schooling has been disrupted by Covid, who will emerge from education into recession, is it fair to ask them to be the guinea pigs?
Still, if there is to be change, we want to help ensure it is for the better. Several contributors referenced Professor Stephen Schwartz’s review (2004) which outlined a set of principles for fair admissions. Universities UK’s own review last November sought to update these from the perspective of universities.
Given our experience about the real barriers, fears and disincentives, we thought we should add our own list of fairness tests that we will apply to any proposals for admission system reform.
- Fair to all: As Vikki Boliver’s contribution rightly makes clear, equal treatment is not always fair. We need to redress social imbalance and the admissions system is the opportunity.
- Balanced between potential and attainment: A fair admissions system will provide access to higher education on the basis of what a student can achieve, not just on the basis of what they already have achieved. That means higher education institutions have a responsibility to help realise the potential of all the students they admit by addressing the attainment gap where necessary. If they cannot provide the support needed to succeed, they should not admit students merely to fail.
- Motivating: A fair admissions system should encourage students to stretch towards their potential.
- Supported by information, advice and guidance (IAG): No admissions system can be fair without support. Students must receive a proper programme of IAG to support their choices. That does not simply mean that support should be available to anyone who wants it, but that it must reach all students, especially those who do not know where to start. It must be practical for schools and colleges to implement and we would like to see it integrated into the system rather than an add-on.
- Continuous and accessible support: Admissions should be thought of not as a system, but as a process over time, a process that prompts people to make the best decision for them without undue pressures. Choices evolve over months and years. Even if the actual application process is condensed, it should be the result of a steady, cumulative, interactive and iterative process of deliberation with engaging IAG throughout. A fair admissions system should encourage slow and supported decision-making, not snap choices.
- Stable: The process’s fairness should not change, even as the environment changes around it. It should be fair regardless of the level of student demand or the availability of places in higher education.
- Honest and transparent: A fair process should encourage honesty, transparency and fair practice among teachers (for instance, in their part in assessment or references) and higher education providers (for instance, in offer-making).
- Reputable: A fair process should use assessment methods that are as reliable and valid as possible. A-levels and their equivalents are not necessarily the best approach, nor are teacher assessments necessarily inferior. Assessments should appraise the whole individual in context, not their performance on a single day in a single way.
- Professional: All those involved in admissions should share best practice and adhere to a code of conduct. We welcome Universities UK’s steps in this direction and would support to re-establishment of SPA programme (Supporting Professional Admissions), which helped to raise and maintain standards.
- Access-promoting: A fair admissions process should seek to minimise barriers for applicants, always looking to create opportunities and match students with suitable places of study, not filter out the unworthy and allow the most selective to cream off an elite.
At its best, the current admissions system could fulfil most of our list – with some changes to how it operates rather than wholesale changes to the system itself. Whatever may come, we shall support students through it, but for their sake, we urge the Government, higher education providers and UCAS not to fall prey to the idea that something must be done; that this is something; therefore this must be done.
Future generations of students should not be the testing ground for responses that score well in headlines or focus groups but fail when subjected to harsh realities.