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Reflections ten years on from the last PQA review

  • 9 April 2021
  • By Mary Curnock Cook

This week, we are 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. Yesterday we shared the chapter by Dr Graeme Atherton, Director, National Education Opportunities Network (NEON), ‘How could admissions reform work in practice?.

This blog is the third in the series and is the chapter written by Mary Curnock Cook, Non-executive director across the education sector and former Chief Executive of UCAS. You can find Mary on Twitter @MaryCurnockCook.

University admissions involve multiple players in the education ecosystem – not just aspiring students and the institutions that want to admit them, but also schools, colleges, teachers, advisers, parents, private exam candidates, exam boards and markers and of course ministers and regulators. Then, assuming a UK-wide system is still desirable, multiply it all by four for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland whose schools, universities, exam systems, timetables and policy environments all operate in slightly different ways.

In thinking about reform of the admissions system, a good place to start is to examine some of the positive things about the current system so we avoid throwing any babies out with the bathwater.

  • The UCAS admissions service is known, trusted and used for the vast majority of full-time undergraduate applications; it is a single process for all courses with a single fee covering five applications ­– more if candidates also use the ‘extra’ service and / or Clearing. Schools and colleges can support their students through a process which is widely understood and on a timetable which is familiarly embedded in the academic calendar.
  • It works well for the majority of students: over 90 per cent of applicants get at least one offer and nearly three quarters get confirmed at their first-choice university and course. For those who do not get their first choice, they can use an efficient, well-resourced post-results application service called Clearing.
  • Applicants go into their examination term with confirmed offers, usually conditional on achieving certain grades. This generally motivates them with a focus on the required grades and the sense of a known destination post-school. Older applicants who already have their grades have the certainty of a confirmed, unconditional offer shortly after applying, even quite early in the cycle, leaving plenty of time to plan their new student lives.
  • Universities have a good idea of the demand for their courses and the likely number of recruits several months ahead of registration, allowing them to plan their resources and ensure that students have a well-ordered start to their courses. 
  • The system has worked well across the four parts of the UK, in both capped and non-capped student number regimes, and in cycles where the supply-demand balance is flipped either way.

But is it enough that it works well for most people? Especially when the minority for whom it does not work so well are likely to be outliers in terms of disadvantage, disability, advice and support and educational attainment. That surely is at the heart of calls for reform – can we improve the system to ensure that everyone, whatever their background, has the best possible chance of making the right choices for their higher education?

The assumed villain of the piece is the predicted grades on which the majority of young school-leavers base their applications. Less than 20 per cent of predicted grades are spot on; about 60 per cent are over-predicted (often by several grades) and some 20 per cent are under-predicted, mostly by only one grade across three A-Levels. The over-predicted grades provide little to worry about since this expected over-prediction is priced into the application system by universities.

Paradoxically, these ‘unreliable’ predicted grades are highly predictable in their unreliableness. Indeed, there may well be more unfairness inherent in awarded grades which the exams’ regulator, Ofqual, has admitted are only correct to within one grade either way.

The evidence that unconditional offers made on the basis of predicted grades on average slightly depress grade achievement means we can also surmise that the predicted grade / conditional offer model will, in aggregate, see students achieve slightly better grades.

But it is the under-predicted candidates that commentators are most worried about lest the low grades predicted by their teachers funnel them into less stretching courses, perhaps forever charting an under-par course for their lives.  What could be done to improve their aspirations and life chances?

The debate about PQA anticipates that some form of admissions system using actual rather than predicted grades will improve fairness for these candidates but, as Mark Corver’s paper points out, this might be far from true and such a system might damage the prospects of more students than it improves.

Supporting teachers to reduce under-prediction of grades might be easier, cheaper and a lot less risky than upending the entire university admissions system.

Or could you run the system completely as-is but simply eliminate the predicted grades from the system? Same application form, same timetable, just without predicted grades? Schools would still have to give their students some kind of expectations about their grades so that they could direct their research, plan their open day visits and make realistic applications. But this could be much broader (and therefore easier to get right) – for example predictions could simply be for ‘high’, ‘medium’ or ‘low’ tariff grades. Students could be encouraged to apply to universities in their predicted tariff band and to some in a higher (or lower) band too. In addition to the ‘firm’ and ‘insurance’ choice, students could be allowed (and encouraged to make) a further ‘stretch’ choice with the same contractual obligations from universities. This could mitigate well for under-prediction.

Another option would be to take further steps to cement Clearing as a viable and fair post-results application window. This would require applicants to register for the early or the post-results process. Universities would have to ring-fence places for the late application window, with some mechanism to ensure that the application windows do not become easier or harder to secure a place through. This model has the benefit of giving choice and agency to students and could also presage a more gradual market-driven change in favour of a post-results system, avoiding the highly risky big-bang change approach.

Finally, I have always wondered whether it would be possible to flip the system entirely so that instead of students applying for places, universities apply for students. This would need students to state some preferences about courses, universities and location and, in effect, advertise themselves to universities prepared to make them an offer. 

These ideas are not proposals. But they are encouragements to think widely about if and how to change a system that on the whole works well for students and universities. Many students want and need known goals to power them through their final year at school; universities need to be able to plan their resources. 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. 

Back in 2011/12, when I led a major review of the university admissions process as Chief Executive of UCAS, I was still relatively new to higher education. Now I fear that I am too inured in the thinking of nearly a decade ago to be able to see clearly what could work with this year’s louder calls for a post-results university admissions system. Now I encourage policymakers to bring outsiders to the table because those of us who have been close to this debate for years may have run out of original thinking.  Perhaps it is not the admissions system that needs to change so much as the secondary assessment system (A-Levels and so on) upon which it rests. Are there better ways to prepare students for a successful higher education and on which to base admissions decisions? There also has to be a question mark over the timing of an admissions reform agenda when the whole education system is under such stress from the COVID crisis. As well as bringing outsider thinking to the issue, we need to make sure that the insiders have the capacity to give wholehearted consideration to any new proposals. The price for getting things wrong in the higher education admissions system is far too high to rush.

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