This blog was kindly contributed by Dr Ann Limb CBE DL. Ann is a former FE College Principal and Founder of the Helena Kennedy Foundation. You can find Ann on Twitter @AnnLimb and the Helena Kennedy Foundation @TheHKF.
The Government’s consultation on moving to a system of post-qualification admissions seeks to address the urgent need to ‘level up the current university admissions system.’
The contributions in HEPI’s timely and excellent report Where next for university admissions? highlight a number of angles on this long-considered issue. Of particular relevance to the aim of levelling up is the piece by James Turner of the Sutton Trust which reveals research showing that it is bright low-income young people who are most likely to have their grades under-predicted.
At the Helena Kennedy Foundation, the Further Education (FE) sector’s unique social mobility charity, we support disadvantaged students seeking to enter higher education from the FE sector. These are people of all ages for whom the barriers to learning are raised so high that their disadvantages can only be overcome through access to multiple and targeted interventions. The disproportionate impact of COVID on those most marginalised and disadvantaged in society has made the need for these interventions more relevant and more urgent than ever before.
As far back as the Dearing Report in 1997, it was argued that a system of applications based on a student’s actual achievement would be better since students ‘know more about their abilities having received their examination results and having studied for longer’. A subsequent review of admissions commissioned by the Government and chaired by then Brunel Vice Chancellor Steven Schwartz argued in 2004 that the system of:
relying on predicted grades, cannot be fair … since it is based on data which is not reliable, is not transparent for applicants or institutions, and may present barriers to applicants who lack self-confidence.
The report urged the immediate creation of a post-qualification admissions system.
Seventeen years on, and nearly a quarter of a century after Dearing, I would argue that a system in which applicants apply with grades in hand must surely be a sensible and equitable policy priority. The current turbulence in the entire education sector caused by COVID presents the unique opportunity for universities to ride the wave of a set of opportunities and devise a post-qualification admissions system that simultaneously responds to the disrupted timetable caused by COVID and tackles head-on issues of discrimination, inequality and social mobility in the current admissions system.
The pandemic has revealed that life for many already disadvantaged students and communities has got harder, bleaker and more desperate. I am reminded of the observation Baroness Helena Kennedy made in her seminal report of 1997 Learning Works: ‘If at first you don’t succeed, you don’t succeed’. It was this report and the plight of disadvantaged students in FE who wanted to get into higher education that inspired me, as an FE College Principal, to set up the charity that bears Helena’s name.
Without underestimating the logistical challenges involved in moving to a system of post qualification admissions, these times create a set of conditions which provide a potent crucible for change – the opportunity to think strategically, work collaboratively and live adventurously. As James Turner writes, fair access to university will continue to require action on other fronts too. With over 20 years of experience at the Helena Kennedy Foundation in providing financial assistance and pastoral support for disadvantaged students from FE aspiring to go to university, we know these interventions make a huge difference to their success. A more equitable system of admissions, under consideration now, would give these students a fairer chance of access to and success in university.
“…relying on predicted grades, cannot be fair … since it is based on data which is not reliable” is true, and prompts the question “where might we find more reliable data?”
A good question; but the answer is not “actual grades” – or rather not “actual grades as have been awarded over the last several years”, for as Ofqual’s Chief Regulator admitted to the Education Select Committee, exam grades “are reliable to one grade either way”. If those “grades in hand” are, say, ABB, Ofqual are acknowledging that this really means “any set of grades from A*AA to BCC, but no one knows which”.
Levelling up, and fair admissions, are indeed “good things”. But just introducing some form of PQA merely replaces the (alleged) unreliability of UCAS predictions by the known unreliability of actual grades – which achieves absolutely nothing.
If PQA is to be introduced, then a pre-requisite must be for Ofqual to deliver actual grades that are reliable and trustworthy. And if they were to do that, teachers would have reliable benchmarks for their judgement, and UCAS predictions, would be even better… in which case much of the rationale for PQA evaporates…
…which then allows attention to be paid to the real problem: the dominance of exam grades as a means of assessment.