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Admissions reform: Comparisons to international admissions systems

  • 24 April 2021
  • By David Hawkins

We have been running a selection of chapters from HEPI’s recent collection of essays ‘Where next for university admissions?‘, which was edited and introduced by Rachel Hewitt, HEPI’s Director of Policy and Advocacy.

This blog is the sixth in the series and is the chapter written by David Hawkins, Founder, The University GuysYou can find David on Twitter @UniGuyDavid.

When considering the ins and outs of a university admissions process, we can often apply one context to another without examining the complexity. At The University Guys, we use an analogy to help explain this: football. If you ask a Brit to describe what the sport of ‘football’ is, they are likely to describe a different sport than an American would be considering: the same word, many different meanings. The same is true for university. ‘University’ is a word which means different things to people in different parts of the world – how an American family might think about the experience of studying at university and how one applies is vastly different to how a British family might think about it. In my career to date, I have supported applicants to universities in 27 different countries. As we consider the future of UK admissions, it is vital to look beyond the surface of how other countries run admissions. It is not different systems for the same university experience; it is different systems created to serve the needs of very different university experiences.

With this knowledge of international admissions, from the perspective of applicants and their advisers, we see that the nature of an admissions process is impacted by two key factors: the nature of the secondary school system students apply from and what they are applying for.

Any university admissions process needs to look at what is happening within the system students are applying from. Indeed, the two will likely have evolved over many years with changes in one influencing the other. Too often when comparing UK admissions to other countries we miss this fact – the very nature of the evolution of UK secondary education with A-Levels, GCSEs and the various other initiatives over recent years has created a highly-specialised educational experience, with most students focusing on a narrow range of options for their last two years of schooling. We also run a mostly comprehensive system, with students able to access a range of different options, all of which lead to an externally-validated qualification. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the UK admissions system seeks to decide entry based on an ‘offer’ of achievement in these qualifications.

The Netherlands provides a good contrast. At age 12, students are admitted to different types of school: typically, either ‘Pre-University Education’ leading to the award of a VWO diploma, or ‘Senior General Secondary Education’ which grants a HAVO. VWO allows some choice of subjects for the last two years and follows the ‘gymnasium’ academic culture typical of other northern European countries, including a focus on the classics. HAVO starts with a common curriculum before students choose one of four pathways. Thus, students in the Dutch school system have already been put onto a stream a long way before getting anywhere near university admissions: where they are applying from impacts the admissions process.

The Dutch admissions process builds on this system. Dutch Research Universities offer direct admission to students with a VWO, apart from in very few circumstances where extra selection procedures exist for heavily over-subscribed courses or those that are ‘small-scale and intensive’, like the range of University Colleges. With a HAVO, you cannot go to a research university, but instead, have direct entry to a University of Applied Science. When at university, the Dutch then describe their selection system as selection ‘after the gate’ – open access (on the whole) to start university, but high marks are needed in the first year to stay on the course. Here, what you are applying for is different: a large, open-access university experience with selection yet to come – the needs of the system (which mostly involves no predicted grades, no references and no statement) are thus very different to UCAS.

A second example worth considering is the United States, perhaps the world’s most complex university admissions system. So much is written in the UK media about US admissions which misses this complexity, and to delve fully into it would need more space than this entire report would allow for. Here again, however, we see how the link between secondary school and the university experience is very strong.

The United States and UK university systems are sometimes described as like comparing apples to oranges, but it is more like an apple pie versus an Apple iPad – the same terminology – but a very different meaning. The big point that is often missed is that students applying to US universities are usually not applying to study just one subject: you are admitted to the university, not a course of study. Thus, the application is not about a candidate’s suitability to excel in Maths, or French, or Literature but in their ability to succeed in the academic and social culture of that university. Given this, universities cannot solely focus on achievement in external exams, academic interviews or entrance tests – a student admitted to major in History could graduate four years later with a degree in Physics with Greek. The US process – with three references required from school, multiple application essays specific to each university, SAT / ACT (in pre-pandemic times) to show a general level of ability and four years’ academic grades from high school – reflects the experience at university.

When we delve back into the US high school system, we can understand why this is so. The USA has no national curriculum. There are no two-year-long exam systems. Assessment for GPA (Grade Point Average) is highly varied, school to school and state to state. What a student graduating from a high school in New Jersey will have studied – and the level to which they studied it – could be very different from what a peer in Iowa studied. US admissions have to be holistic to take into account this variation. An often-overlooked part of US admissions is the role a High School Profile plays. The Profile is a document giving information and data about the school a student has attended – in many ways, it is the lens that the application is read though, providing context to everything else. So as in the Netherlands, the school system that students are applying from impacts the admissions process that has evolved.

When we start to look at international comparators, from Ireland to Japan, Germany to Hong Kong, it is all too easy to look solely at the admissions process detached from the cultures that created them. As we consider the future of UCAS, it is essential to accept that our method has evolved based on the very specialised nature of both our secondary and university curricula and the fact that performance in national, content-based exams is so embedded in our culture. With post qualification admissions, post qualification offers or something else on the horizon, it is important to look beyond the pure mechanics and instead focus on the educational culture that created our system which – to my eyes – is world-leading and in precious little need of change.

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1 comment

  1. Stephen Shilton says:

    An intersting article. It’s always good to find out how other systems work and learn from this. However, it’s also good to start from accurate self knowledge. This paragraph…

    Any university admissions process needs to look at what is happening within the system students are applying from. Indeed, the two will likely have evolved over many years with changes in one influencing the other. Too often when comparing UK admissions to other countries we miss this fact – the very nature of the evolution of UK secondary education with A-Levels, GCSEs and the various other initiatives over recent years has created a highly-specialised educational experience, with most students focusing on a narrow range of options for their last two years of schooling. We also run a mostly comprehensive system, with students able to access a range of different options, all of which lead to an externally-validated qualification. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the UK admissions system seeks to decide entry based on an ‘offer’ of achievement in these qualifications.

    I’m afraid this is a brilliant example of the “UK = England” mentality. Have you heard of the Scottish Education System? The Act of Union (what a misnomer) of 1707 allowed Scotland to have its distinctive system, incorporating a broader approach to senior secondary education, than that of rUK (I know youe article refers to England, Wales and NI). Other than that, this was an interesting piece.

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