Last Friday, the UCAS Admissions Process Review consultation came to an end and now we must wait to see whether the proposals to shift to an ‘application with results’ system (formerly known as PQA), have legs. In short, UCAS is proposing that (young for the most part traditional) prospective students should apply to higher education, results in hand, within a short timeframe in the early summer. Applications would be turned round and decisions made within a matter of weeks.
I should be clear that despite having been a member of the advisory group that supported the review I do not have insider information that gives me any particular insight into the merits or otherwise of the proposals. What I find interesting is that there is no real consensus emerging for deciding what the criteria are on which the proposed system can be judged.
UCAS’s guiding principles of the review – that solutions should be applicant-centred, generate process efficiencies and so on – while high-minded and appropriate starting points for a review process, are too widely applicable to justify change on this scale.
Not everyone will be honest about their real views. Faced with evidence that says that only ten per cent of A-level candidates hold a set of predicted grades that turn out to be accurate, it becomes difficult to view UCAS’s proposals as anything other than common sense. You can see how it could play that way in the media. But the proposals would require large-scale reorganisation and the upheaval that would result is anathema to both the secondary and higher education sectors.
Selective HEIs and sector bodies must be aware that they will appear mean-spirited if they try to shoot down a purportedly fairer system because it is inconvenient. On the other hand we must expect that nearly everyone else will be decidedly lukewarm about the proposals, and nobody wants to look like the lone backer of an unpopular idea.
So it is not impossible, if we were being cynical, to imagine the sector (NUS aside, which is warmly in favour of the idea) scrambling for reasons to reject the proposed system on the basis that this would play well in the Daily Mail. I observe that the Russell Group statement on the issue is entirely about fair access and not about how academics need the summer to get their world-leading research done.
Actually, that’s not what I think is happening (for the most part). There are genuine concerns that the proposed system couldn’t be made to work, and not all of which are down to special pleading. The counter-argument is that it is the responsibility of the universities and the clever people who work in them to make it work for the sake of fairness to applicants.
And here, I think, we hit the crux of the issue. Is it really about fairness? Or, stated another way, how much more fair does the proposed system have to be to make it worth implementing?
All systems are fair if they treat all applicants the same. Some would defend the current system on the grounds that HEIs make decisions on an individual basis, particularly on whether to accept applicants who have missed their grades. But this is not objectively fair because some will slip in and others will be rejected.
The predicted grades system is not fair in the sense that social background appears to correlate with the accuracy of prediction. With the introduction of core & margin number controls, it is doubtful that HEIs will be as able to tolerate inaccuracy as they have been in the past. At least with AWR you can set your parameters and either stick to them or publicly adjust them.
UCAS research suggests that the later the application the deadline, the fairer the system is because it gives everyone the greatest possible chance to explore their options and reach as high a degree of intellectual maturity as possible. Some seem to be making haphazard applications only to subsequently discover on a campus visit that they no longer wish to study at the institution(s) they have applied to. To write this off as laziness on the part of applicants is facile when you consider the social and practical barriers that must be overcome for those least likely to enter higher education in the first place.
Some are voicing concern that the proposed system would actually have a detrimental impact on fair access by placing undue pressure on applicants to make quick decisions and HEIs to process applications faster. It is argued that grades would become the only selection criteria at the expense of the whole applicant – including any data that would set that applicant’s social and educational background in context.
Application with results, the Russell Group informs us, will not solve the real access problems of low attainment and bad information, advice and guidance.
Given that UCAS never claimed that application with results would solve the problem of fair access it is pure sophistry to attack the system on the grounds that it does not. But the Russell Group may have a point, in that if the application with results system is only a little bit more fair for a relatively small number of people, perhaps there is some justification in not wasting resources on implementing it.
But there is one final counter-argument to make: we cannot possibly assess the impact of an application with results system in a vacuum. The very process of transition may focus minds on ensuring applicants have all the information they need to navigate the new system, transforming IAG in the process. New and exciting ways of delivering outreach and recording contextual data may emerge, or we might gain a transformative insight into how applicants make choices, lifting the lid on fair access. Or maybe it is just a massive hassle and the advantaged will continue to find a way to come out on top because this is just how it goes. I’d be quite interested to see what happens, but then I don’t work in an admissions office.
If fairness was the only issue, we would simply hold a national lottery for student places. Systems in themselves cannot deliver the kind of fairness that suits everyone and we should not expect them to. Fairness itself is therefore in danger of being a red herring in this debate. What really matters is how we assess options in good faith and with an open mind, because even if this is the closest we ever come to application with results, you never know what else might come out of the process.