A new report from specialist independent think tank EDSK takes as its premise the notion that for university admissions to be fair, transparent and equitable, universities must sacrifice some autonomy over admissions.
The frame: university autonomy
University autonomy over admissions was, of course, reaffirmed in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, which prevents the Secretary of State for Education issuing instructions on the criteria for admissions, or their application.
At several points in the report, the authors Tom Richmond and Andrew Bailey accuse universities of “hiding behind” the Act to “shield themselves” from government intervention on admissions. The basis for this claim is universities’ lukewarm response to Damian Hinds when, as Secretary of State, he wrote to universities urging an end to the practice of conditional unconditional offers – a dubious action on legal grounds, as Smita Jamdar pointed out on Wonkhe.
It’s rather unfair to accuse universities of cowering behind a law that was, after all, designed for their protection. But on the wider admissions debate, universities have demonstrably engaged – most specifically through undertaking a sector-led review of admissions mirroring the Office for Students (OfS) government-mandated review.
The principle of autonomy over admissions is currently being tested in a much more thorough way, with the outcome of the OfS consultation on the integrity and stability of the English sector expected imminently. And, once established as an acceptable point of intervention, it may be hard to roll back, even when the immediate crisis and associated risk to the student interest has passed.
Richmond and Bailey certainly see the OfS consultation as the basis for a future, much more regulated and nationally consistent system – why, they ask, rhetorically, would you not want a stable sector and protected students indefinitely?
For much of the sector, this will come over as fighting talk. But the reality is that autonomy is a spectrum, not an absolute state. And part of thinking through what an admissions system that can work across devolved nations, that respects student choice and maximises fairness – however you define that – will involve universities agreeing to sacrifice some autonomy, working within the UCAS admissions system being one notable way universities already do this.
So, in that sense, the idea that there could be some new ways for universities to collaborate or harmonise approaches is hardly shocking. And when you look beyond the proposal that the whole thing should be handed to OfS to regulate – the suggestions of how this might be done are certainly worthy of consideration.
The three arguments the authors have with the current system are: the unreliability of predicted grades, the documented rise in unconditional offers and the failures of current practice to address inequality and disadvantage.
Predicted grades aren’t always the most accurate guide to ultimate exam performance; this is well established. But as Mark Corver has pointed out, predicted grades and exam grades are both trying to capture some third quality – potential for future success. Neither is precise and both bake in some level of educational disadvantage. l
When David Kernohan crunched the numbers for the 2019 admissions cycle he found that the rate of over-prediction was reasonably consistent, which led him to suggest that over-prediction is priced into the system – so even if it looks a bit skewed, it all comes out in the wash.
Ben Jordan, head of strategy at UCAS, points out that predicted grades will still be needed, even if they form no part of the admissions system – applicants and their advisors will need some sense of likely performance to calibrate university searches. But, he adds, that doesn’t mean they are a necessary feature in university admissions processes or that there aren’t other ways of expressing them to improve accuracy or better support academic judgements.
The arguments on unconditional offers are well-rehearsed – my own view is open unconditional offers should be encouraged, but I recognise I’m a bit of an outlier on that position. I do find the argument that some applicants should get lower offers in recognition of their disadvantaged circumstances – but absolutely not unconditional offers – a bit circular.
In the area of tackling educational disadvantage, it’s hard to argue with Richmond and Bailey. They make the point that qualitative elements like entrance tests, interviews, and personal statements are vulnerable to bias, and offer opportunities for well-resourced applicants to access additional support to make their case.
Contextual admissions, the authors argue, are approached inconsistently across the sector, with little clarity over the link between different forms of disadvantage and offer-making. You can see why different subjects in the one institution might have a different approach to contextual offer-making – due to the nature of the subject, particular access and participation goals in that subject, and so on – but it’s hardly straightforward for candidates. Add to that the potential for extra form-filling and hoops to jump through and it’s an obvious area for improvement.
Given that Richmond and Bailey appear to have limited confidence in the appetite of universities to update their own processes and achieve consensus on a consistent approach, it’s not surprising that top of the list of recommendations is that the Office for Students should be given responsibility for the regulation of admissions.
Universities would be required to subscribe to UCAS as a condition of registration, with UCAS acting as a designated body for admissions – a proposal that will raise a few eyebrows over in Cheltenham. “One of the benefits that UCAS brings to the sector is our independence,” says Ben Jordan. “We’re independent from government, and UK wide, operating in the interests of students – there is real value in this, so being a designated body may compromise that.”
The next set of recommendations focuses on published entry criteria – it’s suggested that every course publish a standard entry qualification, along with a maximum number that can be recruited to that course while maintaining quality. The standard entry qualification isn’t a terrible idea – in Scotland, the authors point out, moves are afoot for universities to judge what the absolute minimum qualification requirements are for success in any given course, and publish these. The range of entry qualifications and accreditation of prior learning would complicate matters, but that’s what the tariff system was designed for.
It does raise the question of whether it would be reasonable to publish no minimum threshold – the Open University would certainly have to be able to. In some cases, such as access to foundation years, the minimum threshold can be as low as having attempted Level 3 – this is typically targeted at mature students.
The maximum numbers idea is almost a throwaway proposition, but it’s an intriguing one. The ways that are available to universities to account for higher than expected recruitment in a given subject area are often unpalatable – hiring short-term teaching staff, increasing class sizes and so on. You could keep the consequences light – make recruitment beyond your published limit a reportable event, and ask universities to demonstrate how they’re maintaining quality, rather than taking punitive action for a relatively minor and low-risk infringement.
But on the other side of the argument, there’s certainly a risk, as with all student numbers caps, that the less advantaged get squeezed out. And the question of “what is a course” is a hardy perennial – each course is rarely a distinct entity with a fixed capacity.
Further to the standard qualification offer, the report proposes a nationally consistent approach to contextual admissions, in which various forms of disadvantage would be assigned points and those points would correspond to reductions of grades in offers. A national approach seems like overkill, but there would certainly be merit in universities agreeing to adopt a consistent approach to contextual admissions and publishing how these affect offer-making either at subject or institution level.
It would also make sense to find consensus on which factors are included in assessing for contextual admissions: care leavers is obvious, free school meals is also a good contender, arguably refugee or asylum seeker status should be added. Deprivation is a bit more complicated if you’re looking at individuals – coming from a deprived area isn’t always a great indicator. In Scotland the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation is the agreed standard – so something like the UCAS MEM could be helpful.
Now we come to the fun bit – allocation of places. Richmond and Bailey propose that predicted grades, personal statements, interviews and the rest of it be excised from the process entirely. Instead, students would rank up to ten courses in order of preference and would automatically be allocated to their highest preference course possible when they got their results. Where courses were oversubscribed, allocations would be made by lottery. And where students changed their mind or failed to be allocated to any of their courses, they would enter Clearing as usual.
The idea certainly meets the test of fairness and transparency. And, in a potentially positive way, it separates out the processes of universities and applicants getting to know each other from the process of selection – meaning that universities’ engagement with potential applicants would be solely focused on matching courses and students rather than on judging the candidates. It strips out the whole dance of offer-making from the system entirely. And, honestly, even at the selective end, if a student is academically qualified, how much does it really matter if they also have Grade 8 cello?
Sos Eltis, a fellow at Brasenose College, Oxford, was recently quoted as saying that applicants tended to put too much emphasis on being well-rounded: “You can be as flat as a pancake so long as you are good at the subject.” Though Oxbridge tutors would almost certainly point out that while A level performance is a useful starting point for selection at that level, they’re looking for something extra and beyond competence in exams.
Though it would be a radically different approach, I suspect that universities might be somewhat more interested in entertaining it than politicians. It would be politically very brave indeed to propose that the middle classes be stripped of many of their prospects for gaining an edge in the system – though a lottery system would still not address the educational inequities that mean that middle-class applicants are more likely to have better level 3 performance in the first place. But even so, it’s likely to make a lot of applicants and parents nervous, and would probably require some detailed polling and development before it could be implemented.
The report concludes with a section on all the areas the authors haven’t quite managed to think through – this is very much a report about school leavers in England. Mature students, international students, those with exceptional circumstances affecting exam performance, and so on, are deferred for another day.
The premise that admissions is static simply isn’t true – Ben Jordan points to adjustment, Clearing Plus, the UCAS Hub, and UCAS’s own ongoing work on predicted grades (which will support the wider reviews of admissions) as evidence that the sector continues to update its thinking on admissions.
In this respect, the EDSK report fails to give universities the benefit of the doubt. This is a mistake – even if only because it views as settled the position of the sector and thus defers to government and regulation as the answer, when much progress could be made on a voluntary basis. Beyond the question of university autonomy, some of the ideas proposed are definitely more radical than you might expect from a sector-led admissions review. So on that level, it’s a useful contribution to the debate.
It’s also a salutary reminder that public trust and confidence in university admissions is a core feature of a civilised and equitable society. While it’s no doubt frustrating to have universities’ intentions second-guessed, the public must be able to trust that access to university is a function of your academic merit and potential, not your social background, or worse, your social connections.
As Richmond and Bailey put it:
It is deeply concerning how wealth and privilege continue to unduly influence who gets accepted onto university degrees, particularly at the most prestigious institutions. This inevitably results in an overwhelming sense of unfairness as well as risking a catastrophic loss of trust – not just in the admissions process, but in the education system as a whole.