What can Scottish Highers tell us about students coming to university this autumn?

UCAS chief executive Clare Marchant assesses the learning from Scottish Highers and the outlook for the rest of the UK as young people prepare to collect level 3 results.

Ahead of A level, BTEC and other Level 3 qualifications results being published on Thursday, we already know some answers to undergraduate admissions questions that have been asked throughout the year, and particularly since coronavirus began to impact everyone in the spring.

Last Tuesday’s results day in Scotland was an important milestone in the cycle, not least for the 28,970 Scottish students who woke up to see their place confirmed (a small increase of 220 on last year). It also provided us with some tangible and evidenced insights into what we might see later this week.

Positive progress

There’s been further validation, not that any more was needed, of the attractiveness of nursing. We’ve previously shown how diverse and welcoming the profession is, and now more people want to be part of the solution to the world’s most immediate problem.

This week’s numbers showed almost a 12 per cent year-on-year increase in the number of Scottish students with a confirmed place: a silver lining in the dark clouds of past months, which has seen people motivated to apply by the inspiring work of our nurses and National Health Service.

We learned that it is possible to make positive progress on equality during a pandemic. We saw a record entry rate for 18 year olds (the proportion of all young people within the population that have a confirmed place at university) from the most deprived areas of Scotland – 11.9 per cent (1,300 students), and an increase of 0.5 percentage points. This increase narrowed the gap between students from the most and least deprived areas to its lowest ever point, down to a ratio of 3.29.

So, although there has been much discussion and media coverage around the potential for this summer’s grading process to disproportionately impact disadvantaged students, the undergraduate acceptance figures are positive right now. Looking wider than just 18 year olds and including people of all ages from the most deprived areas, 4,360 were accepted to reduce that gap to 1.89.

The improvement is likely, in part, down to the effective use of contextual data and information. Scottish universities have been trailblazers in this space, setting minimum entry requirements, known as access thresholds, for those most underrepresented applicants.

Looking ahead to this coming Thursday, such practices will be more important than ever to enable admission teams to maintain progress in widening access and participation. This holistic assessment of applicant potential, combined with the latest application statistics from last month, should result in another record entry rate for young people this year.

Fair access

We have looked to understand applicants’ perceptions of their results, their experience, and thoughts on starting their studies. We ran a snap survey on Scottish results day to 1,000 students asking them “Thinking about the grades you’ve received, how fair do you think they are?” Encouragingly, given they never sat an exam, around two thirds said they thought their grades were fair.

In a year unlike no other, with a new remote moderation system being introduced within the parameters of life in 2020, having the majority initially agree and be able to continue their educational progress against the backdrop of coronavirus is a significant achievement at a macro level.

Of course, there are concerns at an individual level, and we should expect to see more appeals than usual from students who feel their awarded grade does not reflect their full potential. But the signals suggest that Scottish universities are equipped to apply their contextual knowledge of applicants to make informed decisions about whether to admit an applicant who believes they have been unfairly penalised because of the historic under-performance of their school.

Other survey highlights from last week can provide some reassurance for universities and colleges, though we still need to look at behaviours for those applying through Clearing. Fewer than two per cent of placed students are actively thinking of deferring after receiving their results, much fewer than speculated.

Students reported a mixture of emotions in anticipation of starting their course – the most popular word was “excited” at 71 per cent, versus “nervous” at 60 per cent – and more than three quarters (76 per cent) say they are happy for a mixture of face-to-face and online learning.

Clearing Plus

The biggest innovation in HE admissions this year has been the launch of Clearing Plus, a new personalised service that’s matching students without a place to options they’re likely to be interested in. With Scottish results day passing we can have the first look at how Clearing Plus is working in earnest, and the initial numbers are looking positive. Universities and colleges have allocated around 26,000 courses into Clearing Plus, and so far, around 5,000 students have expressed an interest in a match.

Feedback from students using it has been largely positive too, indicating that it’s helping students find courses adjacent to the subjects they had originally intended to study – for example, mental health nursing as a substitute for adult and mental health nursing. One prospective student said, “It opened my eyes to universities I hadn’t considered in the past, that had a variety of courses similar to what I initially wanted.” And another said they felt the process would now be “less stressful”.

So, what does this all tell us? It seems there’s some cause for optimism. Earlier in the year, we reported the admissions data being reassuringly dull, and in June planned deferrals were down, against many predictions. With rising applications, assurances from universities as to flexibility in confirmation decisions, and the benefits of a personalised, digitised Clearing process in the form of Clearing Plus, logic says that Thursday will bring some positive news.

The higher education sector has united to engage with and reassure this summer’s cohort. We all want students to feel safe and supported in taking their next steps. The stage is set for this to pay off. Planning for autumn teaching has been in train for almost six months and all of us will be upping our game as we support these students who are leading the way into the new style of undergraduate living and learning.

This article is published in association with UCAS.

One response to “What can Scottish Highers tell us about students coming to university this autumn?

  1. The rise in the SIMD20 entry rate and numbers does increase outcome equality. But much of this is due to changes in the application rates and numbers earlier this year (notably a reduction in the application rates for young people from richer areas). So it isn’t in itself reassuring about the equality of the confirmation process this year. A better – though still not ideal – statistic for that is the placed rate for applicants from different SIMD areas. Which has widened this year, both for all applicants and for the 18 year olds most affected by calculated grades. Applicants just outside of SIMD20 are a particular concern. More data here – https://twitter.com/markcorver/status/1292046251408711681

    In any case the largest problem with using the SQA (and Ofqual) calculated grades likely to be individual-level fairness. That a third of students think this process – which , unlike exams- they had no agency in is not fair is troubling. If there is a detrimental effect on WP from this process it is just as likely to come from the pressure of demand against number controls than from differential exam results against conditions. The determining issue – throughout the UK not just Scotland – is restrictive number controls meeting likely elevated demand for immediate entry.

    In addition to ‘snap surveys’ on the fairness of grades, or deferred entry, what would be extremely helpful is the publication of structured data from the unparalleled live database UCAS holds on behalf of the sector and students. Notably the matrix of predicted by achieved grade points (https://twitter.com/markcorver/status/1287760208144597009). These would allow a proper assessment of the properties of the emergency awarding process to be made so that policy makers can make adjustments if required. More important still, it would equip applicants still waiting on results with the knowledge to know if there calculated grades are within a reasonable bound or not, and alert them to take action if they are not.

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