University admissions overhaul will make it fairer and clearer for all

Could it really happen this time? Applying to university with actual A-level grades is a reform that would make university admissions fairer and clearer for all. But most importantly of all it would sweep away the barriers, from poor advice to low expectations, that for too long have stymied the […]

Could it really happen this time? Applying to university with actual A-level grades is a reform that would make university admissions fairer and clearer for all. But most importantly of all it would sweep away the barriers, from poor advice to low expectations, that for too long have stymied the prospects of poorer students. In the UK, unlike any other country in the world, students apply for university with grades predicted by their teachers. The Government has signalled it wants to end this oddity.

We seasoned higher education policy observers have been here before – most recently when the reform was proposed in 2012 and 2004 – only for our hopes to be dashed at the last hurdle. But this time the momentum appears unstoppable. Elite universities, education unions and influential bodies like the Sutton Trust all back the change. The Covid pandemic meanwhile has hurled into the air some of our education system’s once immutable assumptions: the timing of annual school exams and the ancient university calendar. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson’s call for change follows a similar commitment independently unveiled by the admissions service, UCAS, earlier in the week.

A post-qualification application (PQA) system would mean that students applied to university after receiving their A-level grades. This would require stretching the summer gap between university and school calendars, with earlier A-level exams and later degree enrolment dates. An alternative half-way house option also being mooted is that students would apply as they do now with predicted grades, but they would only receive offers from universities after they received their results in August. Needless to say such major reforms would take time and won’t apply immediately to A-level results in 2021.

An obvious advantage of PQA is that it would rid the system of widespread inaccuracy. Predicted grades are wrong most of the time. One analysis found that 84 per cent of applicants didn’t achieve their predicted grades in their best three A-levels. Three quarters of applicants were over-predicted: their grades were predicted to be higher than they actually achieved. Eight per cent of applicants were under-predicted.

But most importantly of all is that it would be boon for social mobility. High achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to be under-predicted (by around half a grade) than their more privileged high achieving counterparts. Meanwhile high achieving students from state schools are more likely to be underpredicted than high achievers from private schools.

An admissions system based on actual grades would also enable universities to be clearer in how they consider lower grade offers for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and allow teachers to focus all their attention on learning in the classroom.

As well as levelling up the playing field is would also make it easier to navigate for all applicants. Academic insiders underestimate just how baffling the university admissions system has become for outsiders lacking the essential tacit knowledge needed to make one of life’s most important investment decisions: choosing the right degree. Removing predicted grades would be one less hoop to jump through in a marathon matching process.

Universities deploy a battery of selection criteria to distinguish between equally well- qualified candidates, including personal statements, teacher recommendations, school exam grades, university admissions tests, interviews, ‘contextual offers’ and much more. Poorer students are more at risk of selecting degree courses with low or even negative returns in earnings. In the educational arms race this is harming your prospects through self-inflicted wounds.

Unsurprisingly young people overwhelmingly support a post-qualification application scheme. Research I’m involved in demonstrates this. A survey we carried out in October found that 60 per cent of sixth form students agree or strongly agree that universities should judge student applicants on their actual grades rather than predictions by their teachers. This compared with 10 per cent of students who disagree or strongly disagree. We also found strong support for the reform among university students.

With this groundswell of support, perhaps PQA’s time has finally come. I can imagine in the future people will look back and wonder how on earth the current system ever existed. But before all that there will be detailed and heated debate in the consultation exercise. Like a current university applicant nervously waiting for their final actual grades and degree offer, I will only believe it when I see this long overdue reform confirmed.

Lee Elliot Major is Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter

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