David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Now here – as my colleague Jim Dickinson would put it – is the thing.

The Office for Students Regulatory Framework (from 2017) makes the following clear and unambiguous commitment:

The OfS will regulate at provider level to ensure a baseline of protection for all students and the taxpayer. Beyond that threshold the OfS will encourage and enable autonomy, diversity and innovation.”

A question of powers and practice

The OfS in fact has a duty enshrined in primary legislation (the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, part 1, section 2, subsection (1)(a)) to “to protect the institutional autonomy of English higher education providers”. In particular, the Act includes within a definition of autonomy (subsection 8) the right “to determine the criteria for the admission of students and apply those criteria in particular cases”.

The domination of the UCAS application route into university gives the false impression that admissions processes are somehow centrally mandated. They are not. Any provider of higher education has the right to admit whatever students it would like to teach in any way it deems appropriate. Musicians audition, artists present a portfolio. Some providers rely almost entirely on predicted grades, others offer in-depth interviews or tests. Yes – some even make offers based on what it says in the candidate’s personal statement.

More germanely, some providers make unconditional offers to applicants. Some make these conditional on firmly accepting a place at that provider. Some providers even admit students through routes other than UCAS. They have a right to do any or all of these things

So, today sees the second and – in some circles at least, more anticipated – review of admissions. The first was established by Universities UK, with clear roots in the 2004 Schwartz principles – and will make recommendations very soon (spring 2020) on best practice. This OfS review (due to complete in autumn 2020 with the publication of a report) is somewhat coy about what it will do:

This (report) will include our views about any need for future changes. We will make judgements about where the OfS might focus further attention by considering our prioritisation framework and our general duties, and about where actions might fall to parties other than the OfS.”

The Prioritisation Framework is an OfS publication that will only be known to fans of OfS board papers. Published in March 2019, it sets out in moderately alarming detail how the OfS decides whether or not to do things. It was initially designed as guidance for the regulator to use in investigating providers, but it can be used to respond to other issues too. The implication is that if OfS creatively interprets the power it has in this area, it will do so carefully and based on a framework.

Just so we are on the same page – the OfS does not have the power to require or demand changes to admissions processes to individual institutions. Neither does it have any powers with respect to UCAS. UCAS is not a “designated admissions body” – it is an independent charitable body (with a commercial arm) that exists primarily because of a historic expression of will by sector representative bodies. OfS don’t have any agreements or concordats with UCAS and do not sit on the board of UCAS.

Of course, there are some regulatory powers in the mix that relate to admissions. The use of “conditional unconditional” offers has been framed as “pressure selling” and so relates to its powers to require providers to have regard for advice on consumer law. Similarly, OfS could (and do) argue that B2 of the regulatory framework (“the provider must support all students, from admission through to completion, with the support that they need to succeed in and benefit from higher education”) would mean they can become concerned if students are recruited to courses they can’t cope with. But generally, this is an area that’s off-limits – HERA gives the education secretary the power to give guidance to OfS to which it must have regard in performing its functions, but the guidance “must not relate” to the criteria for the admission of students or how they are applied.

Open mind

OfS is therefore officially taking an “open-minded” position on both current and possible future admissions systems – framing this consultation very much as a learning exercise. It has taken positions on aspects of the current system – the rise of unconditional offer making is considered harmful, but it is keen to see contextual offer making used. It has, as admissions teams will remember, already taken action as a regulator on both of these themes – the former employing a naming-and-shaming approach followed by a letter requesting an explanation, the latter featuring in many of the (extensively negotiated) access and participation plans.

This consultation and its responses are not the entirety of the review – there will be round-table events with providers and students, and it may consider emerging evidence from the Universities UK review. Indeed, the consultation frequently cites that UUK/ComRes polling that appeared in February.

Principled regulation

In a classic consultation move, we kick off with five principles for a “reliable, fair, and inclusive admissions system”:

  1. Applicants, their advisers and higher education providers should find that the admissions system is transparent and that they have access to full information, presented in such a way that enables applicants to make effective choices.
  2. Applicants should be given the opportunity to demonstrate their achievement and potential with clear evidence and should know how this evidence will be used by higher education providers to select students.
  3. Applicants should be assessed using methods that are reliable, fair and inclusive.
  4. Applicants, their advisers and higher education providers should experience a system that is professional in every respect and underpinned by appropriate institutional structures and processes.
  5. The public should have confidence in the admissions system

Where to start? Well, principle two talks about applicants demonstrating achievement and potential – surely in this context achievement is a measure of potential alongside others? Principle five plays the sector hostage to opinion polling and Policy Exchange style hand-wringing – surely the experiences of the applicant and those supporting them are more important than what the 98 per cent of Express readers call a premium rate number have to say. Seventy per cent of recent applicants think that the current process is fair, after all, according to a part of the UUK poll that is not cited.

Scoping study

We move on to a list of issues in scope – ten of them:

  1. Advertised entry requirements versus actual entry requirements
  2. The use and accuracy of predicted grades in undergraduate admissions
  3. The use of assessment methods including personal statements and references, auditions, portfolio, admission tests, and interviews
  4. The role of contextual offers and contextual admissions
  5. The use of unconditional offers and “attainment offers”
  6. The use of offer incentives, inducements, and false marketing claims
  7. Applications which are made later in the admissions cycle, including the use of the UCAS Clearing system
  8. The transparency of the admissions process
  9. Applicants’ experience of the admissions system processes
  10. Stakeholder’ perceptions of the extent to which the English higher education admissions system is fair and effective.

Those are the matters under discussion – so if you wanted to think about the cost of applications via UCAS (for providers and students) say, you’d be out of luck. More explicitly out of scope are issues around available advice and guidance (so, no complaints about Discover Uni here please), student contracts and consumer protection, partnership arrangements, and the efficacy of assessment methods as predictors of future success.

Beyond opinion and into evidence

Read that last one again. In a review that looks specifically at the idea of post-qualification assessment (as we shall see) we are explicitly not talking about whether that, or any other method of assessment, is a predictor of future student success. Now come on. Surely the whole point of a review of admissions is to help us ensure the right students are being recruited to the right courses, and what admissions literally do is to use assessment methods as predictors of success. The best, and arguably the only, conversation that needs to be had about admissions is about whether current methods are managing that.

We can talk about the use of these methods, sure (point 3). We can even talk about whether the predicted grades are good predictors of actual grades (spoiler, no – but by a reliable amount). But we can’t talk about whether any of these methods – or indeed the registrar consulting chicken entrails – are good predictors of students having the capacity and capability to succeed on their chosen course?

What I think we are seeing here is evidence that this is in part a review of the wider perception of admissions, rather than the way the system actually works. If we were doing that, we could look at drop-out rates by course and identify where admissions methods were having an impact. Research already exists that shows that – for instance – unconditional offers do not necessarily have an impact on student success. There’s not enough good research in this area, we should be looking for more of it.

In question

But let’s look, briefly, at point one – on predicted and actual grades – as a worked example. We know that there is a much higher likelihood of students from less deprived backgrounds achieving better grades at A level. We know that 49 per cent of placed applicants in England did not achieve these grades to get on their course – either through being offered a place despite not meeting the required grades, failing to meet the grades they have been offered but still taking up a place, applying through clearing, or applying through an alternative route.

It’s a mess – sure, but this to me is a question of information and guidance provision (out of scope), and a question of whether grades are actually the best tool to use to admit students that can succeed on a course or if there is a better way (out of scope). The questions merely ask if the issue is a problem, and ask staff whether they can explain the mismatch.

(Question 12, on the use of predicted grades, merrily steps out of scope and ask to what extent we consider predicted grades to be a helpful indicator of an applicant’s merit and potential. I look forward to those answers with interest).

Today’s specials

Once all this is synthesised, OfS sets out a menu of three possible futures for admissions that it would attempt to negotiate into being with stakeholders and providers.

Existing system with reforms

Possible reforms here include more transparency on entry requirements, getting rid of personal statements and/or references, and limiting the use of unconditional offers and incentives. Slightly more sweeping reforms, including getting shot of predicted grades entirely, and reforming clearing, are also on the menu.

Post-qualification offers

Applying to full-time undergraduate admissions, this would be a halfway house between what we have currently – seeing applicants apply before their A levels but receiving offers after results are known. This would likely see some changes to dates for results or the start of the academic year for first years – and, for those who believe that conditional offers motivate A level candidates, would also mean the end of conditional offers.

Post-qualification admissions

The most radical system being consulted on, the example given would see students applying to full time undergraduate courses after their A level results are known, with a speedy response from providers seeing offers made and accepted before the (delayed) start of the academic year. Obviously conditional offers would again disappear. The documentation notes the knock-on issues for student finance (though not accommodation, oddly).

The two cases for change are diligent in noting a number of perhaps unexpected effects on aspects of admissions (interviews and auditions, for example, would be a problem) and the additional pressures placed on many parts of the educational system – Annex B is particularly useful here.

Taming the market

So where does all that leave us? The consultation is coy on UK cooperation – it’s clear on OfS’ English remit but (in the absence of statements of clear cooperation with the nations or their funding councils) justifies a UK-wide look on the basis of interrelationships.

It’s also heavy on student consultation whilst being quiet on how it determines the student interest. Take conditional unconditional offer making – for every student upset about pressure selling I could find you another thrilled that the pressure was taken off at A Level when they were under deep stress. Letting students into the process of weighing up these tactics will be a challenge for OfS as much as it is for individual providers.

And the consultation suffers somewhat from failing to frame properly the governance issues for providers – and the danger is it misses them. Is admissions practice a sacrosanct academic judgement/quality issue – looked after by Senate or Academic Board – or is it a responsibility held at a council or board of governors level? Who decides on this stuff, who do they involve, and how do they record that decision? – all pertinent issues that appear to be missing here.

We’d surely all agree that stakeholder and student perception are important – after all, much of the context for this review is about a notional drop in confidence that the right students are being recruited for the right reasons by the right providers onto the right courses for them. It’s also true that many argue that much of the drama in this area is a direct result of successive government policies of intensive marketisation – the double impact of removing number caps and a declining number of 18 year olds. Tone that down, and solve the problem.

But it’s also true to say that even those who call for the return of tight number controls aren’t advocating controls on postgraduate, or international, or even (as is being introduced in many European countries), a fully nationalised and centralised admissions system. So if we really do have a “system” right now, and that system will retain a bunch providers competing for students, the “system” probably does need change. It’s just not clear that it is OfS that can pull it off.

3 responses to “Admit two: OfS reviews university admissions

  1. It is a shame that your piece doesn’t quote the Higher Education and Research Act (HERA) fully in relation to the OfS’s statutory duty in relation to the institutional autonomy of English higher education providers. Your readers might find it helpful if I explain it given the importance of this admissions review.

    We have a number of general duties and HERA says that we must have regard to them as we exercise our functions. The ‘have regard’ bit is critically important as it means that we have to consider each duty when we decide whether and how to act. We must weigh one against another and decide how to balance any tensions that exist between the different duties.

    Our judgement might be that we can’t justify an intervention because of the extent to which we think it might undermine institutional autonomy. But equally, our judgement might be that we should intervene in spite of a risk of undermining institutional autonomy.

    This all means that HERA doesn’t place an obligation on the OfS to protect institutional autonomy.

    There will be times, particularly when the risk to students is great, when it will be trumped: the greater the risk to students, the less right a provider has to institutional autonomy. You can see how this balancing of the interests of students and the interests of providers might be of particular importance in debates about whether the admissions system is working in the interests of students.

    You kindly published my blog which sets this out at greater length back in 2018: https://wonkhe.com/blogs/having-regard-to-institutional-autonomy/

  2. A strange understanding of “due regard” and “institutional autonomy”. Rewinding back to 2018:

    Due regard means that the OfS MUST consider BEFORE it acts what impact its action may have on the legal autonomy of HE institutions. Taken literally, it means that OfS should produce impact assessments that are evidenced, reasonable, and proportionate to the intended action.

    Although OfS must pay due regard to the guidance it receives from a Secretary of State, this guidance must also have due regard to institutional autonomy. As the law stands, there would need to be compelling evidence of an existential threat to the future of the UK and/or to the reputations and continued operation of Universities to justify overriding institutional autonomy. Susan Lapsworth’s contention that OfS can perform a balancing act, weighing one duty against another duty, misunderstands and misreads the basic legislation underpinning her organisation and the entire higher education sector. Thee bar is set far higher than this.

    The existing legislation protects universities from political interference and bureaucratic control. For sure, the government can make new laws since it has a majority. The 2019 Conservative manifesto included the line “[we will] improve the application and offer system for undergraduate students.” But it the government wants to impose a specific regime on universities, it must pass new primary legislation. Regulation as currently configured cannot deliver this while there are still courts of law.

  3. I don’t really see why the possibility for applicants to take a year between Results Day and entry has been tucked away in the ‘Future Options’ of the consultation… it seems like the most sensible solution?

    You can maintain the current academic calendar, saving on a massive change for the sector; you can give students time to consider their applications, research their HE options and prepare for HE; and you can get rid of unfair offers, predicted grades and dodgy admissions practices.

    You could even build in some sponsored community action projects or Rory-Stewart-style national civic service if you like, to add some benefit for the taxpayer.

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