A call for transparency in university admissions

Today, my union, the University and College Union has published a report that shows that staff involved in the university admission process would like to see greater transparency in the application and admission process.

Some of the most interesting findings were those which relate to the fairness and transparency of the process. We polled staff who work directly with university applications and over two-thirds of them (70%) backed a complete overhaul of the current system; coming out in favour of a post-qualification application system, which would see students only apply to university after they received their exam results.

There are a clear suite of arguments which support this. First, the current use of predicted grades as a proxy for actual achievement is flawed. Only half of predicted grades are accurate with almost one in 10 being out by more than one grade.

Second, respondents are concerned about transparency. Many institutions do not currently operate to a gathered field by considering all applications after the deadline for application. As such, at some institutions, on some courses, (this varies widely even within institutions) places are allocated on a first-come-first-served basis – another example of how the current system can be unfair.

The student who submits their application in October and the one who believes a deadline is a deadline, and submits their application on the eve of the UCAS application deadline, have the potential to have very different responses.

Third, the growing use of unconditional offers calls for greater scrutiny. Up to a fifth of institutions now offer unconditional places to students with predicted grades. These offers challenge fairness and transparency in a number of ways. Some professionals argue that unconditional offers devalue A levels and potentially encourage students to coast.

The process also begs the question, what is the point in institutions publicising minimum course requirements if some students can side-step them? We have heard anecdotal evidence of unethical use of unconditional offers – telephone offers (you have to be a savvy and confident student to ask for time to think about it – is it ethical to phone under-18 year olds with such high-stakes proposals?).

Also, some institutions offer to convert conditional offers to unconditional offers if the student lists that institution as their first choice. This calls into question the purpose and intent. Call me a sceptic, but the sudden increased use of them suggest that they are being used as financial and marketing tools, rather than to support academic excellence.

This quote from the survey captures it well:

‘The [INSTITUTION] unconditional offer scheme is a disgrace. This is a marketing scam designed to attract applicants and has nothing to do with academic merit. The fact the unconditional offer is dependent on students putting [INSTITUTION] as firm choice makes its real intent crystal clear. It is a betrayal of school teachers who are trying to encourage their students to engage with school work. Indeed, unconditional offers are being made on the basis of little more than GCSE grades and teacher’s predictions. This is grossly unfair and has resulted in places going to applicants with grades we would not normally accept. This directly works against the fair access agenda by discriminating against applicants with non-traditional backgrounds who are very unlikely to have uniformly high GCSE grades, or who go to schools where teachers are used to the UCAS system and can read between the lines and make predictions accordingly. In the first year of operation [ACADEMIC YEAR] the scheme was introduced in such a rush, and will so little planning, that only traditional students taking A-levels were considered and other students were explicitly excluded from the process.’

Fourth, the current solutions to the mismatch between achievement and predictions (adjustment and clearing) are confusing and hectic processes which have the potential to simply reward the confident. At present the speed of your broadband and the amount of credit your mobile phone can be just as likely a feature of your final university place as your application data.

There is a clear need for an overhaul and a growing recognition of this across the sector. Leading social commentatorDanny Dorling and the current and former heads of OFFA all back a post-qualification assessment system.

Fifth, our members are also concerned about the navigability of the UCAS process at present. Less than a third (32%) of respondents thought that students understood how their UCAS application would be assessed. Similarly, just 31% said they thought the UCAS process supports students to make the best application decisions according to their potential.

We believe that moving to a system which relies on actual achievement, rather than predicted grades, would be fairer and ensure the brightest students have a better chance of getting into the university that best suits their talents.

Making changes that support fair access will require fundamental changes to the way that we all work, but the benefits of supporting excellence through a fair and transparent process are surely worth it. We would like this work to kick-start a conversation in the sector about how this could work.

How this would work in practice, whether it is tweaks in the examination time table, a tweak to the university academic year, both, or something much different is for the sector to decide. What is clear is that there is a growing recognition that the current situation should be improved.

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