An Irish flavour to EDSK’s line on admissions

The DfE university admissions consultation, which closed today, has seen encouragingly little support for the PQA model on offer from inside or outside the sector.

David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe

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The best that can be said about the alternative PQO model is that it isn’t quite as bad as the PQA one, but this should not be taken as a full throated support for PQO or – indeed – for the existing model. The consensus would appear to be that bumbling on as we currently are has a lot to be said for it, but not all of it good.

Enter EDSK. The small but influential education-focused think-tank takes a step back from the machinery of application changes that have attracted ministers (and UCU, for some reason), with their consultation response focusing on the full set of problems with the current admissions system – adding:

  • “Unofficial” predicted grades
  • The mismatch between advertised and accepted grades
  • The “opaque” and “inconsistent” use of contextual offers
  • A lack of transparency about how competitive courses are
  • The impact of interviews and entry tests on social mobility
  • The impact of personal statements on social mobility
  • “Undermatching”

To the well-known shopping list of “predicted grade inaccuracy”, a generally complex system, and the rise of unconditional offers that we get from DfE.

Some of the new problems are, at best, questionable. For instance, it is trivial to find the actual entry tariff points for the most recent cohort on a particular course from Discover Uni – an exercise that will illustrate just how variable entry qualifications can be. Like contextual offers, any opacity comes from a provider’s willingness to admit a whole student rather than a collection of A level results.

The impact of interviews, entry tests, and personal statements on entry is – I would argue – generally a positive one for this reason. Although the potential for bias exists in any interpersonal interaction, A levels themselves are biased towards students with stable and comparatively privileged backgrounds. Providers collecting additional, contextual, evidence – or attempting to measure aptitude rather than academic ability – do so with care and in an awareness of their own bias.

To deprivilege this kind of qualitative information, and to retreat instead to a mechanistic Irish style process (though with providers setting and being forced to stick to entry requirements rather than using a national ranking of students) we are putting a lot of undeserved faith in the utility of a single season of exams to determine someone’s future.

The other fly in the EDSK ointment is that the proposed system breaches HERA 2017! Section 8, subparagraph (b) (iii) describes the right “to determine the criteria for the admission of students and apply those criteria in particular cases”. Yes, it’s got the “have regard to” clause which could be seen as a loophole, but would clearly not support the kind of wholesale change under discussion. Providers participate in the current UCAS system by convention rather than by requirement – many also recruit outside UCAS, and many mature and international students and students with unconventional routes into higher education will be a stranger to the UCAS form

So this proposal has more than a whiff of the technocratic solution about it – something that I instinctively understand the temptation of. But university admissions are a far more nuanced and personal process than this paper appears to take into account.

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