Every year in August the national media publishes its usual results day slideshow of young people elated or crushed by their exam results. Those results have traditionally determined whether the young people in question have done well enough to secure their first choice university place, for which they hold a provisional offer dependent on their exam performance.
Those who are unlucky enough to miss their grades have to scramble through clearing for courses or universities they may not have previously considered, making decisions, according to the popular imagination, with only a few hours’ deliberation.
Predicting grades is an inexact science at best, with potential for bias to creep into the judgements. Research conducted for UCU by Gill Wyness at the UCL Institute of Education in 2016 found that 75% of students between 2013-15 were predicted to do better at A level than they actually did and only 16% of students’ grades were predicted correctly. That said, the majority of those incorrectly predicted were accurate within one grade – for example, the difference between BBB and BBC which you could argue in most cases is well within an acceptable tolerance band.
Moreover, at the level of the entire sample grades of students from state schools and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were more likely to be over-predicted. However, among the highest performing students – those expecting As and Bs – grades of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were more likely to be under-predicted. Research on the same topic published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in 2011 told a broadly similar story – although the rates of accuracy of grade prediction seem to have declined in the interim.
Faced with this argument, it is entirely normal to suppose that our current admissions system is monstrously unfair, putting the majority of applicants under an undue degree of stress and potentially blighting the life chances of a less-advantaged minority. A system in which applicants apply with grades in hand must, therefore, be an urgent policy priority.
The many lives of PQA
That has been the conclusion of independent reviews as far as back as Dearing in 1997. Dearing argued that a system of applications based on actual achievement would “assist students since they know more about their abilities (and possibly their interests) having received their examination results and having studied for longer”.
A review of admissions commissioned by the government and chaired by then Brunel vice chancellor Steven Schwartz argued in 2004 that the system of “relying on predicted grades, cannot be fair … since it is based on data which are not reliable, it is not transparent for applicants or institutions, and may present barriers to applicants who lack self-confidence”. The report urged the immediate creation of a post-qualification admissions system.
In 2011 UCAS embarked on a review of the admissions process that, in addition to other suggested reforms, went further than any review had done before in proposing a specific implementation model by which students could apply to university after receiving their results.
The key challenge for any post-results application system is time pressure. UCAS’s proposals, though minimising changes as far as possible, would have required holding final exams weeks earlier, publishing results at least a month earlier and moving university term start dates several weeks later to create the space for a national admission process to take place. The sector listened politely and then firmly rejected the idea. The below extract from the Russell Group response to the UCAS proposals gives a flavour of the prevailing view:
We all agree that it is important that our applications system is fair and supports access for all, puts applicants at the heart of the system, meets the needs of a diverse range of applicants, is effective and efficient, and delivers a net benefit to all concerned … (But) we believe that the disadvantages of the proposed changes for students and the costs and major upheaval for both schools and universities outweigh the benefits.
The inertia of the HE sector was not the sole culprit. The secondary education sector, which had previously been open to the possibility of post-qualification admissions, also came out against the proposals. A killer argument was that a post-results application system would mean providing applicants with additional support and guidance over the summer, at a time where schools and colleges were not geared up to deliver this – an issue that would only compound the barriers for disadvantaged applicants.
Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of UCAS at the time of the 2011-12 admissions process review argued that in light of the review finding that a post-results application system was simply not practical, clearing was expanded and professionalised to become “not just a chaotic mop-up of unplaced students and unfilled places” but a meaningful option for students who wanted to apply with results in hand, staffed by “knowledgeable, trained recruiters who are there to help students make the right choices”.
A key, if under-used option, was the introduction of “adjustment” to the clearing window: the opportunity for students to apply to more selective courses if they achieved higher grades than expected.
Once again PQA retired to the graveyard of policy ideas, only to re-emerge in 2019. UCU has long supported the principle of PQA, and in 2018 published research undertaken by Graeme Atherton of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) that explored admissions systems globally, arguing that post-qualification admissions systems are increasingly a global norm. In 2019, UCU and NEON proposed the adoption of PQA as part of a package of reforms to information, advice and guidance and higher education admissions. Again, the proposals include a delay to the start of the university term for first year entrants, who would take up their places in November.
UCU argued that a new admissions model would mean an end to the practice of unconditional offers and a “chaotic” clearing period. Whether you, like UCU, consider clearing to be chaotic or, like Mary Curnock Cook, consider it to be a meaningful alternative application window, is perhaps a subjective matter, and the student experience of clearing is inevitably variable.
The question of unconditional offers is at present unresolved – UCU offers evidence of the exponential growth of unconditional offers as an unambiguous negative. A more balanced view is presented by a UUK 2018 paper on admissions, which observes that unconditional offers are still a minority of all offers, but urges institutions to monitor carefully their impact on subsequent exam performance and retention. As things stand the only evidence of negative impact is anecdotal.
A sceptic might observe that whatever the merits of the PQA case in 1997, 2004 or 2012, in 2019, the removal of the student number cap, the increasing use of unconditional offers and the significant expansion of the numbers of institutions offering places through clearing removes the need for admissions reform. In a demand-led system, level 3 results are currently much less important than they have been in the past, except at the most selective end of the sector.
A study for the Sutton Trust in 2017 found that around 1,000 high-achieving students from lower socio-economic backgrounds have their grades under-predicted each year, out of a total annual pool of applicants of more than 300,000. For the majority, then, the current application system allows universities to gather a field of applicants who are in the right ballpark of attainment and interests and, in an applicant’s market, a missed grade here or there is unlikely to affect the willingness of the university to honour their offer of a place.
This argument holds for as long as the supply of places exceeds the demand; once the overall population of 18 to 19 year olds starts to grow again the argument that students are increasingly in the driving seat when it comes to university applications may start to look less persuasive, especially if the Augar review of post-18 education recommends restrictions to university places.
When principles undermine good policy
As Graeme Atherton has written for Wonkhe, simply because something is difficult and will cause upheaval is not a sufficient reason not to consider it. In the NEON/UCU paper the PQA proposals are positioned as part of a systemic overhaul of the admissions system, including mandatory provision of ten hours per year of information, advice and guidance at level 3, a Student Futures Week focused on preparation for moving on from school or college, facilitation of an optional shared approach to use of contextual data to inform admissions decisions, and wider use of technology to support understanding of student aptitude and potential. However, the specific proposals for implementing a post-results application process do not build significantly on the UCAS proposals of 2012.
The risk is that potentially interesting and viable policy proposals – bear in mind that Atherton is intimately acquainted with the challenges of bridging school, college and university partnerships to expand access to higher education – will simply be ignored in favour of rehearsing the arguments on PQA again. Sector insiders will scoff that they have seen these arguments before.
Even if the sector could be brought to agree to, for example, delay the start of the university term for a few weeks (a process that sounds simple but wouldn’t be) no advocate of PQA has ever been able to explain how to prevent autonomous institutions from informally accepting or rejecting applicants at any time they like. The central application system is used for efficiency; no institution is required to use it and students can still apply directly to their institution of choice outside the UCAS system.
There is no doubt that PQA advocates are acting on principle – certainly that UCU could only be in favour of the policy on a principled basis, given the level of upheaval any PQA system would cause to its own members. But this could be a case where principles get in the way of good policymaking. Increasingly PQA feels like a solution in search of a problem. Meanwhile, a number of thoughtful proposals focused on substantially enhancing the support for applicants to make effective choices may never get air time, because PQA is sucking all the oxygen from the debate.