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Is PQA scepticism damaging the sector’s reputation?

Steven Jones worries that the sector's scepticism toward a post-qualification admissions system makes it seem out of step and resistant to change.
This article is more than 4 years old

Steven Jones is Professor of Higher Education at the University of Manchester

Only in the UK does PQA have a name. Post-Qualification Admissions, the practice by which universities make offers to students once their results are known, has been debated every summer since it was first mooted in the Dearing and Schwartz reports of 1997 and 2004 respectively.

The reason that other nations don’t have an equivalent term for PQA is because it’s something they’ve always done. The abbreviation would be as redundant as PPC (post-pregnancy childbirth) or PND (post-night day). But the UK system is historically wedded to guesswork, making offers to students based on how well their teachers reckon they might do in their exams. We know that such forecasts tend to be imprecise. Research by Gill Wyness demonstrates that nearly one in four disadvantaged students who go on to achieve AAB or better at A-level have their final grades under-predicted. Only 16% of students have every one of their grades prophesied accurately. What’s more, our crystal balls are becoming more, not less, prone to malfunction over time.

Increasingly, there’s political backing for PQA. Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner recently reiterated that a Labour government would scrap predicted grades, adding that “our education system must work for students and be driven by fairness, not market forces”. Newspaper editorials point to the UK’s “outdated” model. Danny Dorling, like many senior academics, is a long-time supporter of reform.

Local admissions staff are on board too, with seven out of 10 respondents to a recent survey saying they back PQA. And David Olusoga gets to the heart of why the current admissions process feels unjust to those without the requisite social and cultural capital, likening it to a first encounter with estate agents: “one of those moments in life when the realities of class and privilege are brought out into the open and thrust into the faces of the disadvantaged”.

What’s more, PQA would mean an end to the rise in unconditional offers, a practice which possibly breaks consumer law and for which the sector is rightly attacked from all sides. Teachers are aghast that their efforts to secure the very best grades for their students can be so casually undermined one game-playing, supposedly market-savvy university.

Sceptical faces

In the face of such widespread support for PQA, one might expect the HE sector to embrace the opportunity. At the very least, one might expect acknowledgement that the current system – mostly untouched since the early 1960s – is out of line with what’s now regarded as fair and transparent.

But this is not how sceptics frame PQA. Take the response of UCAS to Angela Raynor’s statement, which argued that:

“If introduced wholesale within the current timetables, [PQA] would be likely to significantly disadvantage underrepresented and disabled students, unless secondary and/or university calendars changed”.

It may be technically correct to say that if PQA were imposed on the sector without any adjustments at all then those (typically middle class) students with in-the-know personal contacts to draw on in mid-summer would be further advantaged. But of course timetables would change. And of course schools and universities would adapt to a new system.

The claim that underrepresented and disabled students would be “significantly” disadvantaged is both premature and speculative, muddying moral waters. Any negatives would need to be carefully and systematically weighed against the many positives of PQA, a system that could potentially open the door for the kind of ambitious, joined-up progress in widening participation that’s long overdue.

Few of the advantages offered by PQA are acknowledged in the UCAS statement, which drifts unhelpfully into paternalistic and market-based language (“our admissions service protects students, enabling them to exercise their consumer rights”), before ending with boasts about high student satisfaction. As Jo Grady notes, it’s a “lazy defence of the status quo”. But it’s also a self-defeating position if it allows the sector to be framed by outsiders as bureaucratic and change-resistant.

Other issues to talk about

Timing is not the only problem with the UK’s admission process. Indeed, as Debbie McVitty points out, arguments about PQA threaten to suck the oxygen from wider conversations about support for under-represented groups. It’s essential that forthcoming reviews look at other problems with the application process. For example, each UCAS applicant currently requires a reference from their school, something that can take up many hours of valuable staff time. But do generically glowing exaltations really help universities to select the most suitable applicants? Similarly, my own research for the Sutton Trust has shown that the personal statement disproportionately benefits applicants from better off backgrounds, and that state school teachers struggle to give appropriate guidance to their students because they don’t what universities are looking for in an application. It’s also time we took seriously Vikki Boliver’s finding that ethnic minority applicants to selective universities are less likely to receive offers than comparably qualified white applicants.

No doubt the shift to PQA will create many new challenges, as Chris Husbands and others warn. But the narrow logistical problems aren’t insurmountable. Remember that every other nation’s admissions agency copes perfectly well with a post-qualification system.

What’s vital that the UK sector doesn’t unwittingly give the impression that it’s complacent about equity, and tone deaf to legitimate criticism of its practices. With senior politicians now openly seeking to “rebalance” resources away from higher education, the risk is that excess caution about PQA – justified or not – gives ammunition to those who think the sector has lost touch with what society wants from it.

6 responses to “Is PQA scepticism damaging the sector’s reputation?

  1. Steven Jones – you don’t seem to be up to date on this topic. What are the successful PQA admissions agencies in other nations you are referring to? Can you cite one that is a genuine PQA and which generates better outcomes than the UK?

    Also with regard to complacency on equity, Sutton Trust ranks high up. Your organisation is an apologist for rule by elites and not genuinely radical at all. You just want to vary the composition of the elites a little.

  2. “But do generically glowing exaltations really help universities to select the most suitable applicants?”

    Yes, yes they do.

  3. This issue generates strong emotions. Yet, it seems to me that the current system is very difficult to defend. I would start from the principle that the process of predicting grades is fraught with difficulties in a mass higher education system, and is no longer fit for purpose. Everything else follows from that. If we really wanted to change it we could and, I would argue, we should.

  4. Thanks Kathy. I agree fully that the sector needs to begin from a point of principle. At the moment, we give the impression that we’re beginning from a point of practicality.

    And you’re right about the issue generating strong emotions. Most of the responses I’ve had to this piece are along the lines of “this is so obvious it shouldn’t need saying”, but there’s also a hardcore of individuals who are entrenched in their view that the predictive system adequately meets young people’s needs. PQA is regarded by them as some of politically motivated (or politically correct) interference in a jolly good process.

    I understand that moving to a new system would be disruptive. But, as you say, if we really wanted to change, we could.

  5. Bradbury Smith – I’ve worked in HE admissions in two European countries (as well as at one Russell Group institution in the UK) and I can assure you that processes are much fairer elsewhere.

    The author is absolutely correct to say that the UK is unique in its reliance on prediction. The whole system is rigged in favour of those applicants with the best connections at the most expensive schools.

    Your complaint that the author ‘seems not to be up to date on the topic’ refelcts exactly the kind of complacency that the he is describing!

  6. Sadiyah T : you don’t actually take up the challenge to name a country with both a genuine PQA system (application after high school exam results are known) and better widening participation outcomes than the UK. You just state that we should take you on trust. Why not name somewhere that is better? You might persuade this way!

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