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UCAS Application Reforms: A Secondary School Perspective

  • 25 January 2023
  • By Sarra Jenkins
  • Today at 6pm is the main UCAS deadline for entry to higher education in 2023.
  • UCAS recently blogged for HEPI on the changes they are proposing to make to higher education applications in future.
  • Here, Sarra Jenkins, a Politics teacher in Loughborough who is behind the successful @LGS_Politics twitter account, responds to UCAS’s proposals by looking at what they might mean for those on the cusp of higher education.

The successful completion of a UCAS application for a Year 13 student is a real moment of celebration. It is often pre-dated by weeks or months of focus on the application, with students recognising the importance of the choices they are making. Sometimes, though, the magnitude of the process means that they get the balance wrong, and many hyper-focus on the application to the detriment of their current studies. Therefore, reforms which refine the application process, and make it fairer, more transparent, and less stressful are always welcome by students and those who advise them. 

Reforms that have been made to the UCAS application in recent years have made the process more student-friendly and supportive in this often-fraught environment. The further reforms suggested in the ‘Future of Undergraduate Admissions’ paper form UCAS recognises some of the challenges the process currently creates for students. However, whether the suggestions will make the process fairer and less stressful will depend on how these reforms look when they are ultimately implemented.

The reform likely to have the most, and most immediate, impact on students will be the reform of personal statements. Students often do not know where to start with their personal statement, and therefore suffer from ‘white page syndrome’ – the inability to get anything written down at all resulting in angst or even panic. The suggestion of more directed questions would help students produce more nuanced yet simpler answers. However, some of the questions could be refined from the six that are proposed to help students focus their answers better, reduce the workload on students (and staff!) and aid transparency in the entire process.

Personal Statement Reforms

Questions 2, 3 and 5 of the proposals ask students about their preparations for study. It is valuable for students to reflect this to ensure that they are ready for the academic step-up that HE represents. However, there is an overlap in these questions which could make it a challenge for students to delineate between them, making it more complex and more burdensome to complete. These questions could be refined, or combined, to create a simpler approach for students.

Simplifying the language in the questions is also important. For example, in Question 1, ‘motivation for the course’ could refer to their passion for a subject area, or their intended career trajectory.

It is likely that if any of the suggested six questions were optional, students would nonetheless feel obliged to complete them, even if they are explicitly told it is not necessary. Students tend to believe that leaving something unanswered, even when entirely optional, may put them at a disadvantage. Therefore, if the aim of reform is to reduce inequality and stress, it would be useful to have fewer optional sections, and to ensure the questions that are asked have clear parameters and expectation, as well as character limits.

This concern over optionality also applies to the consultation question of whether students should be able to submit different responses to different universities. While on the face of it, this could be positive for a student applying to a range of courses, it could also lead candidates to sculpt five effectively separate applications. This would increase, rather than decrease, the work of the application for student. In this case, it can distract from their studies and while they may end up with an outstanding application, if it is at the expense of the grades that they ultimately achieve then this is self-defeating for students and HE providers.

Each of these issues could undermine the achievement of equality through reform as students with greater support through the UCAS process – in school or at home – may be able to navigate these nuances, and the resulting workload, more successfully than those without. 

The Question 6 Controversy 

Question 6 asks students about ‘preferred learning styles’, specifically ‘which learning and assessment styles best suit you – how do your courses choices match that?’ This seems to have caused controversy among academics and teachers alike, at least on social media. The intent of this question does not seem to have been to ask about debunked educational theories, such as VAK [visual, auditory or kinesthetic]. However, even if the intent is to ask how students prefer to work, it remains controversial:

  • It assumes that students have experienced all possible types of teaching, learning and assessment and that they are the best judge of their use. 
  • Students are not educational experts. Teachers /lecturers might choose a specific teaching method or task that is best suited to developing a specific skill.
  • If a student were to try and answer this question, it is not clear where they would find this information about each course. Some, but not all, course pages outline teaching, learning and assessment methods, but it is not always apparent and easy for students to find.
  • If they could find this information, this question could make it possible for a student to highlight to a HE provider how high up a student’s choices they are – if a student were to write that they preferred exams, but a course is assessed partially through coursework, it could be inferred that an institution is not among the student’s top choice.
  • It is not apparent how this question would be used, or be useful, for universities in course-planning and offer-making. Presuming that a university course is delivered in a manner that is most suited to the subject material, it seems unlikely that the answer to this question would, or should, influence the delivery of a course.

Further reforms

The use of personal statements in any guise is something that varies widely between HE institutions and data on their use is unclear. Transparency here would be very welcomed by HE advisers in schools – thanks to Tom Fryer for running a survey of HE institutions on this. 

There are also suggestions of other reforms in the paper from UCAS, especially following the government’s decision to kick PQA [Post-Qualification Admissions / Applications] into the long grass. The reforms to references represent a potentially welcome change, although more information on the third question is needed. Similarly, the ‘Grades on Entry’ tool may be helpful for students to grasp a little more of the nuance of admission, provided students don’t extrapolate poorly from the data they are given.

The document also discusses further insight into predicted grades. Given previous HEPI reports into the accuracy of predicted as well as actual grades, it seems that they are as much of a challenge for HE providers as they are for secondary schools! Any transparency or insight in this area would be welcome by all of those involved in the UCAS process.

As the Equal Consideration Deadline approaches, Year 13 students nationally will be finalising their applications and celebrating as they get sent off. The process can feel like a rite of passage for those planning on university-level study. Any reform that supports candidates through this process and allows them to put their best foot forward is always welcome. These proposals are a step in the right direction, and with further revisions could help to produce a more equal and transparent application process while being simpler for students to complete.

Read a second response to UCAS’s proposals on the HEPI website here.

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