The current debate over university admissions is founded on a core premise: that A level grades not only are, but should be, the primary determinant of which university a prospective student attends.
We’ve been around the houses on post-qualification admissions a few times now: the Schwartz report of 2004, the UCAS admissions review of 2012 and several substantial pieces of UCU research, which is no doubt informing the Labour Party’s support for the principle. While it’s an idea that’s hard to argue with on paper, the fact remains that no post-qualification admissions system has ever been proposed that met with the approval of all the relevant actors in the system, and as UCAS has pointed out this week, it comes with a bunch of other problems, not least how you put the right support in place for prospective students.
Calls for the introduction of a post qualification admissions system are grounded on evidence (most recently from the Sutton Trust) that predicted A level grades may – and even more so in the case of prospective students from less advantaged backgrounds – turn out to be inaccurate. We can accept that grade prediction is not a science and that, like all subjective judgements, it is subject to bias. We might also note that students from less privileged backgrounds are less likely overall to achieve top A level grades – both points would rather seem to advance the case for downplaying the importance of grades, or contextualising them, rather than building the system around them.
What about unconditional offers?
Outrage at the rise of unconditional offers is implicitly based on low tolerance for the idea that a candidate could enter a selective university without having achieved the “right” A level grades. There is also frequently concern expressed that holding an unconditional offer could cause applicants to work less hard for their A levels, and not achieve what they would otherwise be capable of. Whether that’s an issue is also a matter of subjective judgement; no doubt it is frustrating for schools who are judged on their students’ A level results but I’m not convinced that it matters in the round. You could argue that the grade a student gets reflects their disposition as well as their academic potential, and that a grade achieved only through the incentive of a university place is actually an inaccurate reflection of their future performance because the future performance will take place with less obvious external motivators.
The premise that grades are what counts is both a practical reflection of the system as it has been in the past, especially in a context where the number of university places exceeded the number of prospective candidates, and a normative assumption about the appropriateness of matching high-performing candidates to high-prestige universities. As an aside, it also places a great deal of faith in the reliability of A level grades as an indicator of the scope of an individual’s potential to benefit from a course of study at university. For those with very high grades and those with very low it’s probably more cut and dried than for the majority who are somewhere in the middle. And it’s not long before T levels arrive on the scene to confound the picture further.
A modest proposal
So, what if, rather than accepting the premise, we doubled down on rejecting it? What if universities agreed to make all offers unconditional? Rather than setting conditions for entry, universities would simply admit or reject candidates based on prior academic performance, predicted grades, personal statements, interviews, portfolios, auditions and teacher (or other) references, as appropriate.
There would still need to be a clearing process of sorts, but it could run throughout the admissions cycle, as candidates who had accepted a university offer self-released back into the general pool if they changed their minds, and universities continued to advertise available courses until the end of the cycle. For students, the stress of not knowing whether they would get the grades would vanish (to be replaced in some cases by the stress of being rejected by their chosen university, but that is a feature of the system that we are already collectively prepared to tolerate).
The proposed system takes as its alternative premise that it doesn’t really matter all that much if a student who has demonstrated academic potential in a subject area fluffs their A levels and ends up in a selective university anyway. Even taking into account the propensity of a subset of students to take their foot off the gas pedal having received an unconditional offer, the majority would probably get what they would have got anyway (and how would be able to prove they hadn’t?) As Ofqual has recently clarified following reports that some students get the “wrong” grade, many A level subjects are marked according to qualitative criteria in any case.
It would also at one stroke put an end to the wrangling over contextual admissions – universities would feel much freer to make offers to any student they liked the look of and who they felt would contribute to the kind of learning community they were trying to develop. The potential for forward-thinking universities to take risks on students who might have different support needs, but who would bring perspectives and experiences that would enrich the learning community, would be enhanced. It would also encourage deeper conversation about the meaning of “academic potential” and how it could be evidenced. Some universities would, no doubt, want to put additional hoops in place to be sure they were selecting their preferred candidates – but they are all in principle free to do this anyway.
I don’t doubt there are a million barriers to making this work, not least university autonomy over admissions and the daftness of league tables that take students’ grades on entry as an indicator of quality. But, at the very least, before we go another five rounds over the merits and demerits of post qualification admissions and continue the collective anxiety over the rise of unconditional offers, we should go back to first principles and check that they are still relevant for the kind of higher education system we want to have.