A mature consideration of UCAS data on unconditional offers needs to be based on the fact that England educates its 16 to 18 year olds oddly.
Most take three very specialised A levels and are encouraged to further narrow their focus through subjects that complement or ‘speak to’ each other. At age 16 many young people cease to study any sciences and fewer are studying a foreign language.
A levels, specifically designed for university recruitment, are considered the gold standard. But the world has changed since their creation in the 1950s when participation in HE was about 4%. In 2015 it was 49%. A levels have not kept pace. Indeed, they might have regressed. Lord Baker of Dorking – one time Education Secretary to Margaret Thatcher – described the most recent reforms as a return to “the exams of the 1940s”.
Limitations with the gold standard
A levels have serious limitations. They may accurately identify those who are good at passing exams but they do not assess skills that are becoming increasingly important – such as how well young people work together and their real-world problem-solving skills.
A level results correlate strongly with students’ socioeconomic status. They may more reliably select those with greater family support or those who have gone to better schools, and less reliably identify all young people with the potential to develop and succeed at university.
Over one third of University of Portsmouth students come from low-income households and a similar proportion arrive with qualifications other than A levels. If we selected on the basis of A level results alone we would deny many young people the opportunity to benefit from a university education. And as a TEF gold institution which was ranked first in The Economist’s 2017 ‘added value’ ranking of UK universities Portsmouth has a considerable amount to offer young people.
Freedom and autonomy
This matters because, while UK universities set their own admissions criteria, Universities Minister Sam Gyimah is worried that universities are making unconditional offers to get bums on seats without little regard to how well they will subsequently do. It is not clear why the Gyimah thinks this. However, I do know that the level of knowledge in government of how different universities’ unconditional offer schemes work is remarkably low.
This year the University of Portsmouth ran our first major unconditional offer scheme. We made an offer when we judged that an applicant had the ambition, potential and commitment to flourish on their chosen course. We looked at whether their predicted grades would match or exceed our course requirements. We looked at GCSE attainment and personal statements. In many cases we conducted interviews. We also introduced a scholarship program worth £1000 to any student with an unconditional offer who achieved or exceeded their predicted grades.
The results? Students who arrived through this scheme were more likely to attain their predicted grades than students to whom we gave conditional offers. Let me be explicit: there is no evidence that the University of Portsmouth’s unconditional offer scheme causes students to work less hard.
Judge us on outputs
Fundamentally, universities have no interest in recruiting students who are not passionate and highly motivated and who won’t stay the course. Rightly we are now judged on the basis of our outputs – our graduates’ attainment and employment prospects. The 2017 TEF started this process. From 2019 we expect there to be a subject-level TEF and this week saw the publication of quite detailed graduate employment data.
If our outputs are good – if our graduates succeed in life and work – who cares whether they arrive because of unconditional offers or AAA offers? Equally, if we recruit students who are not successful we will be judged accordingly.
The government’s approach is akin to assessing the quality of gyms on the basis of the fitness of their members when they join. They would only admit very fit people in the first place and this would clearly not measure the benefits of going to the gym. It would more reliably measure prior attainment and social background.
Most importantly, if the government is prescriptive about universities’ admissions criteria, it will increase the risk that many students who can benefit from university will not be allowed to go. Who benefits from this?
The general principle is clear: universities should be held to account on how well our students do during their studies and after they leave, not on how well they do before they arrive. This is the only way to determine whether public investment in universities is value for money.