UCU on the admissions consultation

This year's UCU report on PQA takes the form of a response to the current consultation.

David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe

The University and College Union does some sterling work in supporting the interests of staff in the higher education sector – but their commitment to Post Qualification Applications has always surprised and confused me.

It feels like UCU does a report every year on PQA – this year’s version (co-badged with NEON) is again written by Graham Atherton and is framed as a response to the ongoing DfE consultation (you have till 13 May to submit a response – please do). So we get the usual list of “advantages” of PQA as an opening:

  • Around 80 per cent of A level grades are incorrectly predicted, and this can lead to undermatching
  • Removing early applications would allow applicants to focus more on L3 qualifications and less on juggling offers and choosing universities
  • Applicants entering through clearing (mostly from an ethnic minority background) are less happy with their choice of course and provider

We don’t get the “global norm” argument – perhaps because you have to substantially bend your understanding of major international systems to see them as PQA-adjacent.

Contested reasons

Now, each of these is arguable. Most prediction error involves over-estimating performance – it happens at pretty reliable levels year on year, and most admissions teams are already able to deal with the phenomenon – there is little evidence of systematic undermatching, particularly among students with disadvantaged backgrounds (it does happen, but it is very rare).

Simply removing the January application deadline very clearly does not stop applicants thinking about which course and university to apply to during the end of their final year of study. The difference with the January deadline is that a lot of these concerns stop after the form goes in, and the decisions are made with the support of teachers rather than during the summer break.

And the research does suggest (UCAS research, no less) that students who make their choice of course and provider later in the cycle do tend not to continue – in particular students entering through clearing. A move to PQA would push more students to make a decision at this point.

UCU’s proposal is essentially similar to what was set out in 2019 – a later start to the university term for first years to facilitate an “applications week” in early August with decisions released in the third week of September, with guidance on decision making available throughout years 10 to 13 and expressions of interest (here down to 5 from 12) to providers made round about the time of the current January deadline.

Things to welcome

What is welcome in this year’s version is a commitment making A levels less of a high stakes examination, recognising that a PQA system would exacerbate the current issues. Here the issues with the DfE PQA model are noted, and the greatly enhanced applicant support argued for in the rest of the report is put forward as a solution. The PQO model is dismissed as an insufficient enhancement of applicant choice.

It is worth paying attention to a very sensible set of accommodations for particular groups of students within the 2021 report (chapter 5). UCU calls for a more central role for planning capacity for courses that require interviews or are accredited by professional bodies, and highlights the issue with international applications (suggesting at one point that international students should apply as currently while home students use a PQA system).

It’s clear that advice and guidance needs to be a core component of any application model (PQA or otherwise), and we should welcome the report for highlighting this. And I’d agree that the DfE consultation does offer a “window of opportunity” to examine university applications – if we end up with better careers advice and better application support, rather than PQA, I’d be quite happy with that.

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