Why admissions secrets are a little off-key

The latest ‘secret’ about university admissions is out. Apparently, it’s all about taking music and ballet lessons (though horse-riding didn’t get a mention). Read below the headlines, and you discover that the Guardian’s latest ‘academic anonymous’ has spotted that some of the qualifications attached to these extra-curricular activities can contribute to tariff entry points. This means that these, just as most UK Level 3 qualifications do, come with valued tariff points – beloved by league tables as a proxy for how accomplished your students are on entry, and by implication, how elite your university really is.

This latest article sought to expose the fact that a university is apparently giving priority of offers of admission to applicants with these tariffed (and often pricey) extra-curricular activities. The author rightly raises this as a concern in terms of social mobility, denounces the use of tariff in the league tables, but ends by despairingly advising young applicants and their parents to play the game (or at least the piano) in order to get the best chance of getting in and getting on.

Piano practice

If you suspect bad practise in your institution it’s right that you speak out, question, and understand. Anything we can do to encourage a culture of accountability and self-reflection is commendable, and in the case of this story, yes there are some questions that need answering.

But this story is emphatically not typical of most undergraduate admissions. It does not reflect the professionalism of the sector which has gone from strength to strength since the 2004 Schwartz report, enshrining 5 principles of fair process and procedures. Advice on how to ‘game’ the system needs to be given with utmost care, and be evidence-based. Fuelling the anxieties of prospective applicants with the anxieties of the marketised academy risks undoing years of widening participation work. So let’s look closer.

Points mean prizes?

The UCAS tariff is not uncontroversial, and has recently undergone a complete overhaul of its methodology and point-scales to address some concerns. But it’s also not a secret. UCAS clearly provides full information about it on its website, with a list of qualifications, and even a handy calculator.

The overarching aim of the tariff was about fairness and widening access. Rather than a university dismissing or misunderstanding an unfamiliar qualification, here was a framework to help understand the different ways knowledge and skills could be assessed. For those of us fighting for widening access, it helped enormously in convincing senior leaders and academic colleagues to consider a wider range of qualifications than the three A-levels. It also theoretically allowed greater flexibility to learners: some universities would let you mix and match your qualifications in a variety of ways to reach a required number of tariff points. This was particularly useful to support learners who’d had challenging transitions through to post-compulsory education, or who had disrupted or limited local subject provision. Only about a third of universities frame their entry requirements using tariff points though, and few of those offer a complete ‘free for all’ – they’ll usually only consider points from the larger Level 3 qualifications delivered by schools and colleges.

But – and here’s where it gets tricksy – regardless of whether you set minimum entry requirements in terms of the tariff, or use more traditional subjects and grading, the tariff could theoretically be used to help with ‘round two’: the further selection processes required when more applicants meet your entry requirements that you can offer a place to.  

Safety in numbers

Institutions will all have their own complex (and sometimes semi-automated) processes for assigning value to all the different variables of an application. These could include grades (predicted or actual), subjects studied, the personal statement, academic reference, wider contextual data, and things like interview and audition performance. When the eligible applicant pool is too big, these values will together help to make some sort of ranking of prior achievement and future potential.

It is possible that ‘total tariff points’ could come into play here as a helpful-looking ready-made metric, that is supposedly a proxy of an applicant’s prior accomplishments. However, your typical admissions professional (yes, that’s a thing) would be wary of wholeheartedly relying on any system that couldn’t acknowledge that the skills of dedication and resilience inherent in achieving that grade 8 piano could just as easily be evidenced by balancing studies with a part-time job, caring responsibilities, or pursuing voluntary work. They’ll find a way to ensure checks-and-balances, or simply exclude such qualification points from automatic totalling.

Formulas for success

Is it likely that the tariff is being overly relied on in some selection procedures because of its value to the institution’s league tables? It’s possible, but not likely to be widespread. Admissions staff face all sorts of pressures to their roles as guardians of fair access: a nudge from central planning or marketing (and even course leaders) about going for “tariff-rich” students might be hard to fight against. It might even help with efficiencies – it’s certainly data that can be more easily processed for ranking than subjective judgements about complex individual achievements.

Those feeling unease with systemic changes which might undermine fair access may find it useful to write up procedures and values carefully, and ask colleagues from academic, widening participation, and diversity teams to monitor these through a fair-admissions working group or committee. Ask your peers at other institutions to come and conduct an audit. Train your staff to be informed and empowered. Most importantly: publish your principles and procedures (and you could learn a thing or two about transparency from the Blueprint for Fair Access report from Scotland’s widening access commission).

Behind closed doors

Myth-making thrives in a vacuum. University access still has huge systemic challenges to overcome, particularly in understanding that fair treatment does not necessarily mean always treating people exactly the same when it comes to underrepresented groups. But perhaps as a sector we should be more open about the changes being made to improve things. Bringing procedures out into the public domain – letting people see the ‘rule-book’ – reduces the chance that this vacuum of information will be filled by well-meaning whispers of the ‘secret’ of how to win. It also keeps us honest.

Every applicant and their family wants to know their ‘worth’ to the university, they want the surety which comes with clear equations. Doing x, plus y, equals success. Universities, for efficiency and for consistency, would like that too. But admissions decisions must have an element of the qualitative as well as the quantitative. That’s where talented, committed professionals come into play. Despite current trends, they’re not ready to reduce student experience and potential to numbers just yet.

Jess Moody writes in a personal capacity.

3 responses to “Why admissions secrets are a little off-key

  1. A thoughtful article.

    I can’t be the only person who is increasingly worried about the credibility of the Guardian’s academic anonymous columns. This was yet another piece that was light on sources and high on anecdotes.

    Or to put it another way, not something that would get very far as an academic paper.

    As the author of this piece says it is helpful (and necessary) to keep us honest. The academic anonymous columns could play a part in that but it would be much easier to take them seriously if their assertions could be backed up with some actual evidence.

  2. The Guardian piece is a fine example of the principle that ‘the public has a right to know’, except that the public does not have a right to know the sources/evidence on which the story is based.

  3. “typical admissions professional (yes, that’s a thing)” – very British self-deprecation….is this suggestive of broader matters about how we see universities and their intentionally constructed student communities? A hint of complacency or a taken for granted organisational component?

    North America admissions culture very different .

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