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How researching post qualification admissions turned me from advocate to sceptic

Former UCAS Chief Executive Mary Curnock Cook contributed to a UCAS report on the feasibility of PQA in 2012. The experience made her less sympathetic to the idea.
This article is more than 4 years old

Mary Curnock Cook is chair of Pearson Education, and a former chief executive of UCAS. She chaired the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission

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

7 responses to “How researching post qualification admissions turned me from advocate to sceptic

  1. This may well just be a reflection of my own ignorance, but I was struck by this quote from the FT’s opinion piece on 14 August – “there is no reason a PQA system could not work as it does in other countries — including Scotland, where it is used for domestic students”. Is the press just being short-sighted on this?

  2. But how DOES it work in other countries with a mature higher education sector, Peter?

    Germany: admissions dominated by numerus clausus. PQA means more emphasis on higher achieved grades which are correlated with parental income/education. With the UK system, there is more chance of a contextual offer aka “unconditional offer”

    USA: worse access record across the board.

    Scotland: year on year falling admits of Scots students to their own universities – a failing system that serves only the middle classes.

    Utopia: PQA seems to work fine here along with every other aspect of life. Everyone is on the housing ladder, everyone has a career they love, everyone can look forward to a generous pension, there are zero carbon emissions, and no knife crime. Anyone know how we can all emigrate to Utopia?!

  3. It ought to be possible for an HE sector of supposedly intelligent individuals to devise a system that could work. Of course there will be drawbacks – name a system that does not have drawbacks. The notion of creating a utopia is disingenuous in my view. I’m simply not reading the Scottish evidence in the same way as my colleague. The UUK review may provide a more reliable form of evidence than what is put before us today; although it has the feel of the sector marking it’s own homework, so we shall see.

  4. Maybe PQA is not the answer, but I suggest we must recognise the current system of Clearing is, at best, strange. I don’t know any other industry (other than perhaps Premier League Football) where so much of the total annual income is decided over such a short period.

    I see the amazing work by many teams across universities, but I also see the stress on those teams, the vulnerabilities in the underpinning systems, the costs of setting up the ‘hundreds of professionally manned telephone lines’, the cost of time sensitive marketing including on the UCAS site (ahem!) and that’s before we consider the stress on the students themselves and their families. Perhaps there is research into the likelihood of making the optimal choice in such a time limited and feverish atmosphere.

    So, a bit of Distopia to balance the Utopia: Thinking back to the power cuts of two weeks ago, what would have been the outcome if we had seen multiple power outages across the country on Clearing Thursday? With an increasing number of students all going through Clearing, could such an incident drive an University into bankruptcy?

  5. @Bradbury Smith – the Scottish student number caps are nothing at all to do with the mostly PQA system we have. We’d still have a mostly PQA system even if the caps were removed, as we generally admit on the basis of Highers, which are taken in 5th year, and most students stay on at school and apply during their 6th year.

  6. @Sylvia Dixon The impression most readers would have gained from @Peter Clements is that Scotland operated a PQA system post the equivalent of A-levels (Advanced Highers) so that students with high grades know this and adjust their sights accordingly. But Scotland does no such thing as you point out: selection is based on National 5 (equivalent of GCSEs) and Highers (equivalent of AS). The system of PQA operates hand in glove with a number cap that results in upwards of 15,000 qualified students unable to study in any one of their universities. @Patrick Callaghan says he does not read this as evidence of failure. WONKHE followers are free to make up their own minds on that.

  7. I thought this was a considered article but let me make something perfectly clear – the introduction of Self Release by UCAS this year already constitutes a weak form PQA system and to my mind at least, there is no going back from here. What we need to debate now is whether or not we stop at weak form – a system which also has problems…

    (One example might be higher tariff institutions cornering the market; until we go the whole hog and recruit everybody post quals, they are under no obligation to release main scheme applicants at lower grades on results day until they know how many students will trade up to them with higher grades in clearing – which definitely has a negative impact on those students being held)

    I am fully aware that the act of releasing oneself was possible before the introduction of self release, but applicants assumed much more risk in that process then they do now. They can release and then refer themselves in a matter of minutes, by which point they can be fairly sure their place is still waiting for them.

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