Earlier this month, a slew of headlines about the lack of diversity among Oxbridge students reminded us that progress in widening participation at some of the country’s most prestigious institutions remains frustratingly slow.
It is true that some of the underlying causes of differential access to higher education go far beyond education and into questions of long standing social and economic inequality. However, universities must not hide behind this – we must be prepared to do whatever we can to make the system fairer.
A good place to start would be to reform our admissions system so that it encourages fair access rather than entrenching inequality.
That means learning from examples around the world about what works when making admissions fairer.
A new research report for the University and College Union (UCU), authored by Graeme Atherton and published today, reveals that the UK is a global outlier in its use of predicted grades for university admissions.
The study, which looked at admissions systems in 30 countries around the world, found that England, Wales and Northern Ireland are the only places in the world where predicted grades are used as part of the process of offering places to study higher education.
The report makes a powerful case for a move to a system in which offers are made on the basis of achieved grades, as they are across the world.
The problem with predicted grades
UCU has been arguing for some time now that our current system is outdated and unfair. This is not only because the use of predicted grades sets the UK apart from our global counterparts, but also because it is inaccurate and drives behaviour that entrenches disadvantage in our higher education system.
Previous research for the union has shown that only around 16% of predicted grades match those which are ultimately achieved. Essentially this means that crucial decisions about young people’s futures are being taken off the back of guess work rather than solid data. I can think of few other arenas where this level of avoidable uncertainty would be deemed acceptable when the stakes are so high.
That same research shows that high-achieving, disadvantaged students are more likely to have their grades under-predicted than their richer counterparts. Disadvantaged students also receive less support to navigate the complexities of the admissions system than their better off peers.
As a result, many disadvantaged students apply to less selective institutions than their final grades would allow. If we want the most able students at our most esteemed universities, surely one of our first priorities should be to ensure they are all actually encouraged to apply, rather than put off doing so because of faulty estimates of their potential.
Worryingly, in recent years we have seen a proliferation of unconditional offers made to students on the back of predicted grades.
As critics including universities minister Sam Gyimah have pointed out, these offers make a mockery of exams and published entry requirements. They also put students under enormous pressure to make hurried decisions about their future rather than fully considering where they will get the best educational experience for their individual needs.
The Office for Students’ (OfS) commitment to analyse the use of unconditional offers by December 2018 is welcome, but this issue can’t be considered in isolation. Unconditional offers are a symptom of a broken system, not the root cause.
If we really want to get to the core of the problem, a bolder reform of admissions is needed. Post-qualification admissions are working well around the world and there’s no reason why they wouldn’t work well in the UK. That’s why I have written to the new Director of Fair Access and Participation this week to say it’s time we grasped the nettle and followed suit.
The new report suggests that change need not be something to be scared of. It highlights several successful higher education systems that are continuing to change their approach to admissions and the support which students receive in navigating the system, all with the aim of improving fair access.
Take France, for example. With input from trade unions, it has launched a new “student plan” which aims to provide extensive, structured support to students making choices about where to study. Or the Netherlands, which has introduced a “study choice check” for students to make sure that, once final grades are known, they have a chance to review whether they are well matched to their chosen course of study.
In my experience, UCU members who work in university admissions are as committed as anyone to making the system fairer. In a survey of staff involved in university admissions, seven out of 10 respondents said they would support a move to post-qualification admissions. Leading voices on widening access, including former Director of Fair Access Les Ebdon and the Sutton Trust, agree that such a change would be a positive step.
A root and branch reform of our admissions system would provide an opportunity for joined-up thinking – both in terms of how students are supported to make choices about where to study, and how we ensure institutions are making fair, transparent and well-informed choices about the students they want to educate.
OfS has stated that tackling disadvantage and improving student outcomes are two of its key priorities. Implementing a post-qualification admissions system which matches students to courses based on actual achievement rather than vague estimates of their potential would be an excellent place to start in achieving both of these goals.