I’m old fashioned enough to retain a belief in the value of expert opinion. So UCAS’s position (“Post-qualification offers, then, if you must”, to characterise it in a phrase) was an important intervention in the debate, as is the newly published response from HELOA (the professional association for admissions, outreach, marketing, and recruitment staff).
HELOA says “Hell, no!”
This was a member-led consultation response, emerging from a questionnaire and comments at a series of webinars. And, while there was some support for a post-qualification system, the overwhelming majority of members favoured keeping the existing system of admissions.
Now there may be some cynical voices in the Sanctuary Buildings that would see this as producer interest. Perhaps admissions professionals are so caught up in the sheer joy of clearing and the untrammelled delights of the UCAS Tariff that change would ruin the fun?
This position falls apart when you read the actual response. The concerns are about support for students making important decisions in the summer without the support of teachers and careers staff, and a genuine worry that a revamped system would focus on qualifications to the exclusion of a consideration of aptitude or context. And it is noted that level 3 exams themselves favour applicants from less disadvantaged backgrounds.
Some PQA thinking suggests moving the start of term to allow more time for decision making – HELOA notes that this leaves disadvantaged applicants without income for the early part of the autumn, and under pressure to get a job rather than enter higher education.
And there is a note on the needs of students with disabilities. All students benefit (as UCAS noted) from a longer relationship with their chosen provider before the course starts, but for students who literally cannot do the course without specific (and often complex) support it is essential that time is available to get this right. Likewise, if you are entering a professional course which requires background checks these take time to do and are not something that can be rushed.
And a no on PQO
HELOA members prefer this to the full PQA option, but:
It has similar issues and does not seem to address many of the problems we already have with the current system
The timescale pressure on decision making is still an issue with post-qualification offers, support needs to be there though the money is not for school and careers staff working over the summer. The stress of having to organise the bulk of the next academic year – choice of course, plus accommodation, plus finance and other support – in a few short weeks remains a significant barrier.
Realistically, we’ve got one chance to reform admissions. Be it radical, or be it tweaks round the edges, the political will is there for something more substantial than year on year iteration. HELOA (and everyone else) has eyes open to the problems with the current system – but the design of the consultation means that it can only respond to two largely unappetising alternatives.
As neither provides the support that applicants need, HELOA’s no is a reluctant one (it is clear that there are ways of doing PQA that members could support). But as the body of expertise in working with applicants of all types to ensure that the UK’s admissions system is equitable and works based on potential rather than background, the rejection of the two models should mean a serious policy rethink is needed.