Over the next few days, we will be running a selection of chapters from HEPI’s recent collection of essays ‘Where next for university admissions?‘ edited and introduced by Rachel Hewitt, HEPI’s Director of Policy and Advocacy.
This blog is the first in the series and is the chapter written by Dr John Cater, Vice-Chancellor, Edge Hill University.
I type to a recording of Joe Biden’s Inauguration, to the (sometimes literal) strains of Lady Gaga, but, my earworm is channelling a line from a song four decades past, ‘I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m going…’.
Is there a problem?
There is a determination to do something, but the Government’s consultation on post qualification admissions is some distance from the rhetoric that preceded it. The Secretary of State’s Foreword talks of an ‘intention to explore’ – indeed the word ‘explore’ appears five times in five short paragraphs – and the first line of the consultation asks ‘whether to change’ the current system. So why the new-found hesitancy?
We have been here before. The Dearing Commission in 1997 looked favourably on the principle of a post qualification system and the Schwartz review (2003) sought to remodel and add substance to the skeleton. But, two decades on, these reports gather dust. In any organisation there is a ‘too difficult’ box, where the challenges of radical change outweigh any perceived benefits, and where failure could cost the protagonist their career. It may be that a complete overhaul of the admissions system falls into that category.
The race has also slowed. A standard 12-week consultation has been extended to 16, and the Department for Education knows it has far greater challenges to tackle in the interim, while schools, colleges and universities are hardly short of equally urgent priorities.
Following the consultation there will be change, but how much? First, it helps to understand the scale of the problem. Almost four-fifths of all pupils have their grades over-predicted, but this ‘best possible outcome’ is understood by admissions tutors across the length and breadth of the devolved nations, and, while the intercept has shifted, the curve, predicted versus actual, is largely consistent. A far bigger issue covers a far smaller proportion of the population – the one-in-twelve whose performance is underestimated. But research by DataHE comes to a counter-intuitive conclusion that these individuals are less likely to be drawn from under-represented groups. Clearly, it would be helpful to know more. In the interim, increasingly challenging Access and Participation Plan targets rightfully continue to help drive institutions towards truly meritocratic outcomes.
And what of the UCAS system itself? Three-quarters of applicants now get a place at their first-choice institution (though one-in-four do not), and each year a further refinement – compensation, Clearing, Clearing Plus, Adjustment, self-release – facilitates flexibility post qualification.
But there is another important factor; the market. While the number of applicants being placed at low-tariff and, increasingly, middle-tariff institutions declines or ossifies, the number entering high-tariff providers accelerates upwards, with an 11 per cent increase in 2020 alone. This acceleration will continue: financial uncertainty, debts and covenants, the loss of international and EU student numbers, all pressure institutions to recruit flexibly, and the removal of student number controls allows a perceptual elite to benefit. Given this, the applicant who aspires to study at a high-tariff provider is increasingly likely to see that aspiration met.
There remains, however, the nub of the perceived problem, the inaccuracy of predicted performance and the concern that this will lead to a suboptimal outcome for the individual. In terms of learning and teaching or student support, a lower tariff provider may be far from suboptimal for an individual, and not all students will have similar levels of geographical mobility. It is, however, right to acknowledge that much of the labour market, particularly outside of the main public sector employers (health, education, social care) has a long-established, and seemingly immutable, preference for graduates from a limited number of universities.
The discontinuity between prediction and grade, if it matters much, is a product of competition – no school or college wants to place a pupil at a perceived disadvantage by under-estimating optimum performance – and, increasingly, a lack of evidence. In the disrupted school years of 2019/20 and 2020/21 this is particularly pronounced.
It is also a product of the shift away from modularised A-Levels in the middle years of the past decade. While the treadmill of summative assessments in the January and May / June of both Years 12 and 13 was ripe for reform, the lurch to a single summative examination point after two years of study comes at considerable cost; no independent evidence of pupil performance to inform teacher assessments, and no independent Level 3 guidance to university admissions tutors to inform pupil aptitude for higher education.
Is post qualification admissions the solution?
The vast bulk of educational disadvantage occurs long before two-fifths of the 18-year old population enters higher education; but would PQA lessen disadvantage at this point in the educational lifecycle? The answer is moot.
Most universities with strong track records in widening participation will talk eloquently about longer-term relationship building, about preparing an applicant for degree-level study, about supporting an applicant and their families for the non-academic aspects of the next three or four years of their lives. We have seen this through Aim Higher (in its various iterations), Lifelong Learning Networks, Action on Access and, now, through the sadly-diminished Uni Connect programme.
Although a post qualification applications model would be in danger of destroying that relationship completely, a post qualification offer model would doubtless diminish it, as candidates hold a range of expressions of interest rather than a commitment to one. And decisions made in haste, in a much-shortened post-offer window, may be decisions regretted; higher withdrawal rates for those entering through Clearing would certainly suggest so. Think of this through the lens of the applicant. Would performance, health and well-being be best served by entering Level 3 examinations with marks in the bank; with a three-in-four chance of their first-choice university; with a goal to aim at and an incentive to perform to the best of their ability?
The alternative to a rushed decision-taking process and a delayed start to term might not help either. The Government consultation wisely all but rules out a January start, which would see those less able to depend on family support drifting into jobs that failed to reflect their capacity and potential. But even the delay of a month would have a concomitant effect and put the university year, already truncated for many, increasingly out of synchronisation with schools and colleges.
The biggest problem with a short window between offer, acceptance and commencement may, however, relate to the need to interview and gather further information and clearances for very many students. Are you admitted to perform without an audition, to paint without a portfolio?
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.
There is more. Candidates for professional programmes leading to public service need Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) clearance. No individual can be put into a practice-based setting without it; nor can they be fully enrolled and therefore entitled to draw down their student loan. Between March and September 2020, DBS clearance was given to 2,926,000 applicants, with universities spreading their numbers across the recruitment cycle. Concertina DBS applications from and for education providers into a shortened time frame and the system, which depends on police verification, would be severely stretched, possibly to breaking point. And, ultimately, workforce supply could suffer.
Over half-a-million candidates apply to UCAS every year. Approaching 400,000 get their first choice and only a declining percentage who would wish to do so do not enter university. The system is not perfect, but it would be a brave politician who turned over the tables in the temple, given the risks involved. That said, could the current system be improved?
- The reintroduction of some form of summative assessment at the end of Year 12 would give an objective basis for teacher assessments and admission tutors’ judgments.
- Delaying the opening of UCAS until mid-October for applications for Medicine, Health, Social Care and Teaching programmes (where interviews and DBS checks are essential) would break the eternal cycle.
- If feasible, commencing a truncated Main Cycle from the beginning of January – enabling pupils and schools to focus on learning and teaching throughout the autumn term – could help, with all decisions reached by the end of March.
Further strengthening of the late application and Clearing process – possibly by insisting that all institutions hold over a percentage of places (one-in-ten?) for those they wish to compensate or recruit through Clearing, Adjustment or self-release; and, through the Access and Participation Plan, monitoring (and, if necessary, setting targets) for recruitment through this process.
Not perfect, but better? Less likely to collapse – and less likely to create vacancies in the Department for Education in Great Smith Street. And that earworm? It has moved on: ‘I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’. You too?