Post-qualification admissions have been shelved for now and, to be honest, I don’t mind.
It’s not that I don’t care about the admissions process, it’s just that I wasn’t persuaded by the arguments that it would lead to improvements for all the stakeholders, in particular applicants.
But I am glad that the consultation took place if it has created enthusiasm for looking further at admissions processes. Especially if we can properly explore the relationship between UCAS entry tariff offers and the tariffs achieved by those subsequently enrolled on courses.
I have been thinking about this relationship for quite some time now – whenever I heard a news report describing the stresses that students feel to achieve the grades needed to secure a university place, or when I listen to the debate around inflated predicted grades. So I decided to take a closer look, using publicly available data sets to estimate the proportion of students enrolling on courses without meeting their offer.
I used data from three sources:
- Discover Uni – provides rolling 3-year data (currently 2017-2019) on actual UCAS tariffs achieved by new entrants by course, institution and nature of entry qualification (Level 3, foundation degree etc);
- Institutional course webpages – provide data on standard/contextual minimum UCAS tariff offers;
- Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) – provides historical data on A level grade distributions by subject.
Applicants are certainly encouraged to look at the first two of these sources; I simply used JCQ data to estimate the impact of covid-related grade inflation at A level on my analysis. I wanted my analysis to mimic the experience of an applicant and so I decided to focus on a single degree course. Having worked in a Mathematics department for almost 25 years, I chose a course most familiar to me, BSc Mathematics.
Having explored the data for a while, I restricted my analysis to the 59 institutions at which at least 50 per cent of students were admitted historically via Level 3 qualifications. In 2022, there is a good range of standard offers for these courses. All courses require A level mathematics and almost half (29/59 = 49 per cent) require at least one grade A (UCAS tariff at least 128). Contextual offers, for students satisfying widening access and participation criteria, are explicitly given for 18 (31 per cent) of these courses, typically involving a reduction of 8 – 16 tariff points (1 – 2 A level grades).
Comparison of current to historical entry requirements was possible for 49 institutions from my sample. Of these, 29 (59.2 per cent) had made no material change to their standard offer in 2022, 10 HEIs (20.4 per cent) had increased their UCAS tariff and 10 HEIs (20.4 per cent) had lowered their UCAS tariff. Only one institution made a change greater than one A level grade (8 UCAS points).
Of course, Covid-related A level grade inflation is a complication when trying to use historical data as a basis for prediction in 2022 but as we see the increase in students achieving the top two grades (A* and A) in mathematics over the past 2 years is significantly less than across all subjects. This means that a student applying for BSc mathematics in 2022 has proportionately less Covid-related A level grade inflation.
The bottom line
Even with the most generous interpretation of entry requirements, my analysis suggests that between 2017-2019 only half of the institutions had at least 75 per cent of their student entry meeting the minimum requirement. And between 20 and 25 per cent of institutions had a student intake where less than half of the entry cohort had achieved the minimum entry tariff.
Anticipated grade inflation in 2022 Level 3 qualifications may lessen the number of students failing to achieve their offer this year whilst securing a place. But this will be a temporary fix whilst the staged return to pre-Covid grade distributions happens.
If the mismatch between offer and actual entry tariff allows students who miss their offer to enrol on their preferred degree course, why should we worry? The answer seems clear – because it puts undue stress on the student who accepts a conditional offer at the limit of their aspirational target when a slightly lower offer (1-2 A level grades) would have provided a safer target – and would still secure a place.
But the effect is felt far beyond the applicant stage. For those students admitted onto courses having missed their offer, their academic confidence can be damaged from the outset. They may be less inclined to build academic relationships with their peers thinking they won’t be good enough to make useful contributions and if they are offered additional transitional support that can reinforce their sense of failure before they even get going.
Am I just writing about something that is special to maths degrees? I don’t think so. This mismatch may not arise for all degree courses but speaking with A level students shortly after results day over several years, it is certainly true that many other disciplines have a similar track record.
I’d like to see the sector make some changes.
In the short-term we could agree to publish the percentage of current Year 1 students still enrolled at the end of the first term/semester that met their personal entry requirement together with the median actual UCAS tariff of students currently enrolled across all year groups (typically an average over 3-4 years).
And once we’ve got used to that, maybe we could use those metrics as a basis for UCAS entry tariffs? It seems like a simple solution to a potentially complex problem. But then, I am very fond of Occam’s Razor – so just maybe a simple solution might be a good solution.