This year the annual cuckoo-call for PQA (post-qualifications admissions) to higher education has come with a fully-fledged Labour Party policy announcement that has given the subject a little more attention than usual.
Clare Marchant, the CEO of UCAS, rightly acknowledged that the concept of PQA has a “natural appeal”. That natural appeal derives from the simple logic that applying to university with known grades makes much more sense than the predict/apply/conditional offer model that has been in place for decades. David Willetts agreed in his 2011 White Paper “Students at the Heart of the System”, saying that the benefits of such a system could be significant, though pointing cautiously to the planned UCAS Review and wider consultation in contrast to the settled policy positioning of Labour this week.
We’ve been here before
Back in 2011/12, I spearheaded a major review of the admissions process while I was at UCAS. We crawled all over the system, modelled hundreds of different application and admissions systems, and consulted widely across universities, colleges, schools, students and parents, and produced a fully worked model for a PQA system.
Having ruled out postponing the start of the academic year to January (too big and hairy for universities to take on and an unaffordable gap for lower-income students), we proposed shaving a few weeks off the exams and marking schedules, and pushed the start of the autumn term forward to mid-October to produce an an 11-week week window in which students could apply, applications could be processed, offers and decisions made, accommodation sorted and student finance put in place – for about 340,000 students who typically wanted to start university the autumn after their sixth form exams.
At present, students can make five university course choices through their UCAS application. With the greater certainty of known grades, we proposed two parallel choices in a defined window, followed by unlimited sequential choices. This would cut down the number of applications to be processed in the shorter timescale by about 1million.
An intelligent sector response
Instead of the expected bellyaching from universities resistant to change, the consultation elicited a range of intelligent and thoughtful responses that were more focussed on students than on internal process challenges. Universities worried that students wouldn’t get the support and advice they needed with the process taking place almost entirely in the summer holidays after they had left school. They were especially worried for disadvantaged students who they felt were less likely to be urged back into school in the holidays to pursue a university application.
Schools leaders, previously very supportive of PQA, gave the proposal careful consideration and rejected it. They also worried that they couldn’t support all their sixth formers in this short window and that the hard-to-reach would become harder-to-reach outside of term time.
The process assumed that students would carry out their research on a similar timetable as at present so that they would have a good idea of their preferences by the time they applied. Thus, they would have been searching online information, visiting open days and events, and engaging with their preferred universities. However, in order to do this efficiently, students would need some idea of their predicted grades so that their research was in the right ballpark. People pointed out that if they were visiting universities with unofficial predicted grades, it would be impossible to stop universities from making unofficial conditional offers. Wouldn’t this all end up as an uncontrolled version of the current system, without the safeguards of the UCAS terms and conditions?
For a detailed read about why PQA was rejected, Section 7.3 (p49) of the UCAS consultation report sets it out in full technicolour detail.
What happened next?
Perhaps the biggest change in the admissions landscape since that consultation exercise was carried out has been the reversing of the supply-demand balance. Back then, demand outstripped the capped supply of places in many universities. Within a few years, student number controls were removed and this, combined with a ten-year decline in the 18-year old population, flipped the balance towards students. Almost all universities were recruiting as well as selecting students and universities which wouldn’t have been seen dead in Clearing in the past started to recruit hundreds of students alongside the more usual Clearing recruiters.
A new practice of making Unconditional offers to students before they got their exam results has perhaps been the most controversial practice arising from this new competitive recruitment market. With volumes of Unconditional offers spiralling since their emergence in 2013 and UCAS data indicating that some students are achieving lower grades as a result, the practice has drawn fierce criticism from politicians (“bums on seats”), regulators, teachers and advisers. Deaf to the sector’s rather weak defence of what is clearly a marketing tactic, the widespread opprobrium heaped on the practice has been a major spur to this week’s announcement from Labour, the OfS’s planned review of admissions, and the parallel UUK review.
An ex-evangelist repents
Back in 2012 I saw myself as an evangelist for PQA, determined to find a way to deliver the process that natural logic and social justice appeared to demand. However, the evidence that PQA might actually do more harm to those it was supposed to help was overwhelming and I backed down smartish. Instead, UCAS advocated choice for applicants. Those for whom a conditional offer acted as a motivation and goal could continue to use the existing system of applying early, working towards their target grades and aiming for a confirmation of their place post-results. Anyone not sure of what they wanted to do, or less sure of what their realistic grade targets might be, the Clearing process was available as a ready-made PQA system.
In the intervening years, the old-style Clearing madness has become a distant memory. While it is still a rapid and focussed recruitment round, universities use it as a genuine late application window, providing hundreds of professionally manned telephone lines to advise aspiring students. This year, UCAS is predicting another major increase in the number of places secured through Clearing, helped by a new streamlined process for students to self-release into Clearing.
This surely heralds the coming of age of PQA as a genuine choice through Clearing. If schools want PQA, they can eschew the familiar rituals of predicting grades and conditional offers, and instead use the buying power of their students to make universities wait to recruit them post-qualifications. If they do so, they will need to carefully resource the support they offer their students. And they would do well to note the evidence that unconditional offers appear to depress grade achievement. Because the corollary to the damage done by unconditional offers is the motivational impact of the conditional offer.
Also on Wonkhe: Debbie McVitty’s Beginner’s guide to PQA