PQA is often trumpeted as a key reform to make admissions fairer. But if our aim is to widen access, the question we should all be asking is not “PQA or not”, but “how can we put fair access at the centre of any reform to admissions?”
We know that the biggest barrier for students from disadvantaged backgrounds in accessing university is attainment. In a PQA model where students, colleges and universities finally have access to awarded grades, we risk reducing the admissions process to the pure matching of grades to university entry requirements.
With attainment stubbornly remaining the biggest barrier to access, we should be moving to an admissions system which assesses students more holistically and measures their potential, not leaning further on attainment as the barometer of success.
The current debate has focused on the consequences of underprediction, and undermatching – where students enrol on courses less selective that their grades would allow. Both are real issues, but they predominantly impact high-attaining students from disadvantaged backgrounds. These students number 1,000 a year – only 0.2 per cent of the entire cohort. Those students deserve support, but it should be targeted at them and their needs specifically, not the entire admissions timeline.
Predicted grades are notoriously unreliable, but Ofqual has admitted that even assessed grades themselves are only accurate to within one grade. It’s debatable whether they would really vanish in a PQA model – teachers will continue to assess students and have conversations about their options based on these assessments. We’re risking a lot of change to tweak a process for the benefit of very few students.
Even when we address undermatching, it’s not quite that simple. We know from the work of our charity partners that the decision to go to university is incredibly complex, and students deserve time, support and guidance to navigate the additional factors that feed into it: distance from home, accommodation cost, extra-curricular offerings, the list goes on. Reducing their decision to whether they match the entry requirements ignores that complexity.
Deciding to apply to university, and which institution to attend, should be the culmination of a process, not the entire process in itself. Widening participation initiatives should ideally begin when students are in Year 9 or 10, if not earlier, to embed those ideas and prevent routes to higher education being limited by course and subject choices at Level 2 and post-16.
PQA would condense the application process drastically and move support outside of term time. The higher drop-out rates from students who have been through Clearing show the risks of quick decision-making. It’s much harder to reach students outside of term time, and we know that those who most need the support are even harder to engage. It’s difficult to counter this with term time support if there are no hard deadlines for applications or acceptances until the summer holidays.
We should be working towards a system that enables all students to make the decision that’s best for them. PQA risks taking us backwards.
PQA would be a drastic – and disruptive and costly – course of reform that fails to address attainment or support students to overcome additional barriers to access. There are simpler ways to improve the system.
To tackle the attainment barrier, we need high quality tutoring to boost attainment in underrepresented groups. We need comprehensive contextualised admissions across the sector, reducing the required grades for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Universities must acknowledge that prior attainment alone can never truly measure a students’ potential.
We must also protect widening participation funding – and ensure it is spent on evidence-backed interventions that address additional barriers to fair access, like familiarity with the higher education system and sense of belonging. We need to keep learning what works best for which groups of underrepresented students – a benefit of the incredible work TASO are doing – and scale it so that all young people get the right support.
But what we really need is for the debate around admissions to have fair access at the heart of it. We have an access gap of 18.8 percentage points between students eligible for free school meals and their better-off peers – the highest since 2006-07. We shouldn’t even be talking about a move to PQA without strong contingencies to ensure access isn’t impeded, and clear strategies for how to embed fair access into this new model.
Because, pre-qualification admissions or post-qualification admissions, we’ve still got a long way to go before we have fair and equitable admissions.