A first look at UCAS’ new grades on entry tool

UCAS has a new tool showing successful students' actual grades on entry to their courses. Debbie McVitty got a sneak preview

It can come as quite a surprise to those outside the higher education sector that the grade requirements for entry to different courses that universities publish on their websites aren’t, as prospective students might assume, a hard and fast rule, but more of an opening gambit.

Course entry grades can be a bit of a political lightning rod, featuring at the intersection of arguments about quality and standards, and those about widening access. Universities, particularly those that wish to maintain a reputation for being highly selective, are motivated to keep their published entry grades high, as a signal for quality and high standards, and to attract the “best” students.

Entry standards, of course, feature widely in university league tables and rankings and although these are typically drawn from historic data on actual grades on entry rather than published entry requirements, it’s recognised that one of the most straightforward ways to increase league table ranking is to increase the entry grades.

So for UCAS to have brought the sector to the point where it is able to publish, in beta, the historic grades and qualifications students have held on entry on a course by course basis, is the definition of a Jolly Good Thing, giving prospective students proper information about their chances of success if they apply to a particular course rather than the impression the institution wants them to have.

It’s been a long road to get here, and in all fairness, institutional concerns have not solely been about reputation but about the quality of the data and how it is presented. There’s also more work to do on developing the tool further, but this is a meaningful moment for fairness in admissions and should be marked as such.

How did we get here?

Skip this bit if you want to get straight to the features of the new tool in the next section, but for those who like a bit of policy history, here it is.

The debate on access and fair admissions has tended to focus on the value of a post-qualification application system, or the legitimacy of making contextualised offers, in which a university sets the entry grade requirement lower for a prospective student who due to their specific circumstances might be predicted or hold grades lower than those normally required for entry, but who in the university’s judgement, is nevertheless likely to succeed.

Successive admissions reviews over the past 20 years have agreed that universities should be transparent about all aspects of course entry requirements – which may include assessment of a portfolio, work experience, or an interview or audition in addition to entry grades – but over time that expectation of transparency has become interpreted in a more finely-grained way.

Thus, the Schwartz report of 2006 advocated for transparency in publishing admissions criteria, but against a backdrop of controlled student numbers took as read the relationship between published entry grades and the grades held by students accepted onto the course. A review of progress against the Schwartz recommendations commissioned by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills in 2008 noted the limitations of this approach, observing progress towards transparency but also “some issues around the need to provide applicants with information which may suggest there can be variations to the published levels at which typical offers are made.”

The 2011 white paper Students at the heart of the system made new proposals for increasing transparency on the qualifications of successful applicants, but focused on “type and subject” ie whether the majority of applicants had, for example, an A level in Maths, rather than grade profiles. This, needless to say, was not implemented.

Not everything is attributable to whether or not student numbers are controlled, but one of the consequences of the removal of student number controls was that some institutions started to do innovative things with their offer-making strategies to maximise their share of the student market, including making unconditional offers and, subsequently, what became known as “conditional unconditional offers” ie offering a guaranteed place to students who put that university as their firm choice on their UCAS application.

These offer-making strategies provoked a sufficient degree of public consternation to prompt a new review of admissions and the Schwartz principles by Universities UK, published in 2020 which recommended that “universities and colleges should publish historic, actual entry grades (including through Clearing entries) alongside advertised entry requirements to improve transparency and raise aspirations.”

This recommendation built on Universities Scotland’s Working to widen access report of 2017 which took the bold step of recommending that all of Scotland’s universities should publish a minimum entry standard for all their courses rather than an aspirational one, and that universities in Scotland should adopt a consistent approach to making contextual offers.

The Universities UK review stopped short of recommending that universities in England should be consistent in their approach on contextual offer-making, but recommended greater consistency in explaining how contextual offers work, what may be taken into account in considering whether a contextual offer should be made, and the minimum entry standards that apply for applicants who might be eligible for one.

The tool in action

I was given early sight of the tool by UCAS colleagues and the opportunity to have a play. Advisors have had this available to them since 2021, so the focus of the last 18 months of development has been on presenting accurate and useful information to student applicants – though it’s likely advisors will make use of it as well.

Like any prospective student faced with the overwhelming number of options available I decided to stick to what I like: English Literature.

Here’s a screenshot (taken from the test environment) of how likely I am to get into Durham University next year (sadly for me, not very). Although the first thing to observe is that the tool is very clear it is not telling me my future likelihood of gaining a place, only the historic data – it shouldn’t be used as a predictor, but assuming a level of consistency year-on-year it offers a sense of which institutions might be a stretch goal for me, and which are safer choices. All this is explained in the “learn more” link which takes you to some very comprehensive background guidance and information which will almost certainly be used more by advisors than by prospective students.

The data is separated out by type of qualification not aggregated by tariff, so in this case I am able to compare my own A level grades (or predicted grades) with other applicants holding A levels. The tool can also at this time handle BTEC extended diplomas but not other level 3 qualifications – those are on the development roadmap. One option would have been to simply convert entry qualifications to the universal UCAS tariff, but this would have ended up with bad information in a lot of cases, as a good number of providers do not accept tariff points, and specify particular qualifications.

The box on the upper left explains where the data comes from – in this case the data is aggregated over three different English studies pathways at Durham. For data to appear from a single course there needs to have been more than 50 students registered, which is why some courses have been aggregated. Providers have been given the opportunity to review which courses have been aggregated in this way. In passing I wonder whether the tool might encourage institutions to simplify the range of published course pathways available.

The other aspect of the data is the historical time series; in this case covering students accepted between 2019-2023. Given the vagaries of admissions during the pandemic some providers wanted to narrow the range of dates for which data is available, and they were allowed to do this. Providers were also permitted to opt out entirely of providing the data on the grounds that there is not enough data or for those that do postgraduate applications through UCAS, that the course is not aimed at prospective undergraduates.

Over on the top right I can see the modal (most common) grade profile as well as the highest and lowest grades held by successful applicants. And on the bottom right I can enter my own grades or predicted grades and compare my grade profile with accepted applicants. A feature of the system is that if the grades you enter are higher than the highest grades accepted, the system returns a not applicable result – in other words it is not technically able to tell you the success rate of those who applied with your grades because that data does not exist, even though you can probably draw the conclusion you’d be fine. If your grade profile is lower than the published range, you get a message saying that, but noting that you might be eligible for a contextual offer.

That brings us to the other new feature that UCAS is releasing alongside the grades on entry tool: a space on each course page for providers to say something about their approach to contextual admissions. This is open text – providers are completely free to say what they want including linking to institutional policies. In principle this offers the opportunity for a greater degree of transparency and consistency in practice around contextual offer-making but only if providers take up the opportunity.

This speaks to me of definitely being one of those moments where the sector can do itself a favour and be better than it’s required to be; it’s likely a future government will pick up this thread of contextual offers and look to the sector to show it is demonstrating best practice. Fun fact: one of the concerns that very selective providers expressed was that the narrowness of the grade range might genuinely put off promising but less confident applicants – ie seeing that the lowest grade profile on entry was, say, A*A*A would deter them from applying. My instinct is that published grades on entry closely matching actual grades on entry only confirms that the course is as selective as the candidate presumably already believes it to be, but we shall see how the tool is used in practice – and it adds to the argument about the value of publishing clear information about contextual offers.

UCAS plans to develop the tool further in the months ahead, adding a wider range of qualifications to the mix, plus provision for candidates holding mixed qualifications. The data will be updated annually from here on out, and evaluated using analytic data on usage and feedback from UCAS’ advisor panel. It’s not perfect yet, but the history of university admissions policy suggests that the sector makes more progress by embracing and building on small but meaningful changes rather than trying to design and implement a whole new admissions system.

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