Now PQA is everyone’s favourite

Paul Greatrix was into PQA before it was cool. He even liked the early stuff.

I’ve written here before about my enthusiasm for shifting to some form of post qualification admissions system (PQA), first back in 2013, then in 2016 and again in 2018.

Indeed I would argue that every round of admissions in the past decade has demonstrated more persuasively the case for PQA.

Since then, we have had a compressive review of Admissions by Universities UK which has just reported, another one by UCAS (which came as a surprise to me and many others), a report from Graeme Atherton of NEON this summer and who could forget the review by the OfS commissioned by the minister in 2019 (other than, it seems, the minister).

I must admit that a decade ago when Mary Curnock Cook, then at UCAS, led a consultation on PQA I was skeptical, but since that time – as things have become more and more messy in the admissions space – I have come fully round to the need to adopt some form of PQA. Indeed, I’ve become a real fan. And just as fans of obscure bands sometimes prefer their niche fandom and grow increasingly resentful and begin to feel sidelined as their heroes become more popular I must admit to feeling more than a little uneasy at the new enthusiasm of many for the rising star that is PQA.

Teenage fan club

I could have lived with all of this were it not for the surprising news- the Secretary of State has announced in The Times that he too is a really big fan. And indeed more:

The government plans radical reform to degree course admissions and will push it through even without support from universities, the education secretary has said. Gavin Williamson told The Times that the admissions process was a hangover from the 1960s and no longer fit for purpose.

The education secretary revealed his plans last night, the day after Universities UK called for an overhaul to make the process fairer. He said that he wanted to move fast on changing the system, potentially from autumn 2023.

Asked which option the government favoured, Mr Williamson said: “I’m incredibly open-minded. There has got to be radical change. We need an admissions system that works for students. It’s perfectly likely that [we could support] people applying after results.”

He added: “We want to work with the sector and make it happen — the whole university sector has woken up to the reality that there needs to be reform — but if we weren’t able to do this by consent then I would be comfortable legislating to make it happen.”

It’s a move which sounds like the equivalent of the Official Charts Company announcing that your favourite but previously little known band is going to be number one in the charts for six weeks over Christmas, whether people like it or not. While remaining “incredibly open-minded” about it Mr Williamson seems nevertheless to have determined that if the sector does not agree to do what it has already decided it wishes to undertake then he is considering legislation to make it happen.

This would represent an extraordinary intervention and a fundamental challenge to university autonomy and our freedom to determine which students we admit. I’m not certain it would work either. However, rather than get all chippy about it as if our fave band has just sold out, let’s instead focus on a moment of seeming consensus here across all parts of the sector that now is the time to plan a way forward to some model of PQA.

We need a joined up approach, not a return to the Wild West

We do therefore need all parts of the sector to come together on this which is the prospect offered by the Universities UK review. This includes, critically, UCAS, which despite its involvement in the comprehensive UUK review chose to go public with its own position on PQA a week earlier. This seems extremely surprising and it is hard to understand why they would seek to pursue a different path here. UCAS was established by universities over half a century ago (originally as UCCA and later adding PCAS and then as a merged body UCAS) to provide a unified admissions service for students. It would be unfortunate to say the least if it has decided to distance itself from the sector’s determination of the way forward on admissions to take a different route.

Back in 2013 one of my concerns about admissions was that the sector’s response to the challenges around university entry would lead to an “admissions wild west” in terms of recruitment and an “anything goes” approach to securing the best qualified students. If every HEI choses to ignore the rules in the name of competitive advantage we would end up in pretty much the same place as the US HE sector, where it feels a bit like every university and student for themselves. We don’t want to end up with an admissions free for all which would be costly, unhelpful and hugely inefficient as well as being massively unfair to and stressful for students – particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. To avoid that end point we need to ensure we move towards a joined up approach to PQA which helps us get to a system where we have students making informed choices and a system supporting the holistic assessment of applicants in a fair and transparent way.

Getting the show on the road

The current arrangements, whilst historically understandable, remain logically indefensible. There is no reason why widening access should be harder under PQA, particularly if fair admissions is part of the ambition; some disruption is inevitable but if we plan properly it will become more manageable and really it can’t be that much more of a challenge than the 2020 cycle.

In designing a new PQA system though we do need to limit the scope for unhelpful interference, address the core principles required for fair admissions, ensure universities can’t subvert or game the system as well as seeking to provide proper information, advice, and guidance for applicants, and address widening participation needs. The route to achieving this would mean change for all parties, but I really do think such change will be in the long term interests of everyone.

Therefore I am really pleased UUK will be consulting the whole sector on proposed ways forward for PQA, with a model based on what it has characterised as a ‘post-qualification offers’ approach which would include the following benefits for students:

  • ability to change application choices easily
  • no requirement to decline offers before grades are known
  • not at the mercy of advisers’ and providers’ guesses on likely grades
  • retains the ability to meet individuals’ specific needs
  • protection from “respond quickly” tactics
  • a national offer day leveling access to Clearing opportunities

Consultation questions will include the issues of:

  • access to support, information and advice for applicants
  • practical implications for scheduling interviews and auditions, or securing relevant clearance to train in certain professions (for clarity, the intention is that this would run as currently but without predicted grades)
  • other unintended consequences.

And I like the road map:

Longer term stability in the admissions system will be helpful to HEIs – but will also work in the interests of applicants, ensure proper attention is paid to widening participation, and be fairer. As I have said many time before over the years there are no rational arguments for retention of the current arrangements: it really is time for PQA.

So, will I keep listening to my favourite band even though they are really popular now? Sure I will, but will always remind people that I was there when they were starting out and knew about them before they were famous and long before anyone else thought they were any good.

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