UCU’s answer on admissions reform skips a few steps

The government has clearly stated that post qualification admissions (PQA) is not on the table right now, but that hasn’t stopped UCU arguing the case.

Will Awad was an Editorial Assistant at Wonkhe

With a definitive statement from DfE that PQA is not the current priority, UCU’s new report How admissions reform can address five big challenges for higher education, authored by NEON’s Graeme Atherton, is pushing at what appears to be a closed door. But the report itself raises some good arguments as to how admissions reform could be used to solve challenges of a new lifelong learning system and making the admissions system more geared towards the needs of applicants.

Atherton argues that by making the UCAS system more flexible – moving it away from the current focus on predicted grades – will allow a broader range of people to apply, especially those looking to use part of the Lifelong Loan Entitlement. This would also potentially open more access routes into HE, and allow the existing UCAS system to be one that is transformed into a multifaceted application process that would work for a far broader range of applicants.

The report calls for the admissions system to be more focused on the needs of students – something that few in HE would have a hard time disagreeing with.

Atherton’s case is compelling on the power differential between universities and schools and colleges. A 2019 UCU survey of school, college and university leaders found differences of opinion on the current admissions system between the three groups – findings mirrored to some extent in the responses to the DfE consultation on PQA:

“…while more than 80% of school leaders and 70% of further education and sixth form colleges leaders think the present admissions system is not fit for purpose only 40% of HE leaders do.

Although over 40 per cent of leaders in HE believed students knowing their results before applying would be helpful, more than 90 per cent of leaders in schools held this position. These stark differences suggest that, whatever the future shape of admissions reform, it will need to address the concerns of school and college leaders.

Yet the argument of the concluding sections of the report – that PQA would be worth the hassle and those who say otherwise are simply afraid of change – underestimates the scale of disruption involved. Having seen first hand the level of work that already goes into the admissions process and cycle, to declare that the process is a secondary issue is concerning.

The current system is not perfect and already has large numbers of university staff working at full capacity for several weeks to match results, process and send acceptance information to UCAS, and work through confirmation and Clearing. Putting more pressure on these staff would ultimately lead to an even more stressed system and, most likely, result in a worse end user experience for the students applying as they have to navigate a process pushing an already stretched workforce beyond its limits.

Including more voices in the discussion is absolutely right, as is putting students first. But dismissing genuine worries about achievable processes and workloads should not be considered a secondary issue. After all, admissions staff are often the ones dealing directly with students and providing the service.

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