At a time when funding for universities is facing renewed pressures and the case for university participation appears to be questioned from all sides it could be argued that reforming admissions is another change we do not need. Especially if it involves a shift to post qualifications admission, with all the upheaval that would bring across post-16 and higher education.
However, these arguments are wrong. This is precisely the time that we should start to look at developing a genuinely comprehensive admissions system that brings us into step with the rest of the world. One of the major reasons that HE is under so much pressure is that there is a perception among some policymakers, those from other parts of the education system, and sections of the wider public that we are in this for ourselves and that what matters to us is those who deliver HE rather than those who benefit from it. Admissions reform is an opportunity for the sector to demonstrate that this is not the case.
From elite to mass system
UCU and NEON’s paper, published today, reimagines HE admissions. It shows that a new system is both desirable and feasible. It argues that at present we have an admissions cycle not a system: a set of dates when prospective students have to submit information, rather than support structures which enable students to make the best decisions for them.
The current process was designed at a time when less than five percent of young people entered HE. The consequence of this is that anomalies, such as clearing and increasing use of unconditional offers, become built into the system. Moreover the requirement to make grade predictions, once a minority sport, becomes another unpaid part of the job description of teachers and lecturers in post-16 education.
The new system would have three phases. The first phase would run from year 10 to up to and after the final examinations prior to HE application. It would include a mandatory minimum of ten hours per year of HE-related information advice and guidance for students over each of years 10 to 13, and a Student Futures Week at the end of year 12 (ie the first year of level 3 study).
The second phase would focus on application with students applying after examinations. This does require reducing the period for providers to make decisions about applicants, but we argue that some of these pressures can be alleviated by moving back the start of the academic year for first year students to the beginning of November.
Reforming the system should also include reviewing how potential is measured – for example, through creating the opportunity for adoption of a shared approach to the use of contextual information in admissions. The role of interviews and personal statements in making admissions judgements should be tested and alternatives explored, as these are a further example of how what worked in the days of elite HE works less well in the mass higher education era.
Looking at how technology, for example, could enable different ways of assessing potential should form part of how to deal with applications in the new system, including those to highly competitive courses and institutions. This means looking for example at aptitude testing, video presentations or automated interviewing. Such methods have limitations but so do existing assessment methods. Securing accommodation and applying for student finance would also need to be considered but as we suggest in the report, much work could take place before application to smooth these processes.
The third and final phase would be after application and where a later start to the academic year becomes a real strength, enabling a greater focus on transition, preparation and entry for first year students. Problems with retention, especially for widening participation students, often stem from induction. This induction phase could also be seen as a pre-reading period for all students to ensure that learning time is not overly disrupted by this change.
A national review of admissions
We do not underestimate the work that constructing a new HE admission system would entail. Further and deeper consultation in the form of an independent review of the system would be a logical next step. Such a review would need to include consultation with the HE workforce on terms and conditions and an examination of the opportunities for existing bodies to enhance their roles to work together collaboratively to deliver the new system. It also needs to include views from different parts of the education sector more comprehensively than previous reviews have.
The extent of the challenge is significant but the scale of the change proposed is not a legitimate reason to shy away from it. Admissions reform would show clearly that students are the priority of the HE sector, and there is never a better, or more necessary, time to show that than now.