Will proposals to change university admissions work?

10 Nov 2011 mikebakereducation.co.uk

 The proposal from UCAS to overhaul the universities' admissions system has met with mixed responses. If it goes ahead, A level results would be brought forward to early July and students would apply to university by the third week in July. Offers would be made by mid September with the start of the university term being pushed back until early October. Even though they would have at least five years to get used to the new system, it would be a massive change for schools,colleges, exam boards and universities - not to mention pupils.

The intention is laudable - to produce a much simpler applications process and fairer access to higher education. But I predict that this could be a massive waste of time and money. Here are the reasons why.
First, there is an assumption that because results are known in advance applicants will make more informed choices.  I do not agree. I think if the applicant is with a school or college with poor careers advice, choices could be still be ill-informed. Even where there is good advice teachers and careers advisers will be trying to sort out applications in a much more constricted period of time.
Second, an unintended consequence of pupils applying after A level results is that it could lead to a large reduction in numbers applying. The current applications system acts as a massive free advertising campaign for the UK universities system, with many schools and colleges having well-oiled applications systems which are unique to their institutions. The UCAS Apply process draws in many applicants and, through below-the-line peer group pressure, also persuades many waverers who are not sure about applying. If this is all done after potential applicants have left their institutions, schools will be under intense pressure to get the applications in within an impossibly tight timescale.  I also believe this will have a much more marked effect on numbers applying to HE than the rise in fees. This could also be exacerbated if the number of higher apprenticeships increases and potential higher education applicants are holding offers of an apprenticeship before they leave sixth form. A possible consequence is more universities closing or merging. 
Third, there is received wisdom that schools are poor predictors of pupils' grades at A level. I disagree. The present AS levels are, in my view, reasonable predictors of success at  A level because maintained schools and colleges now have to declare  AS level results when pupils complete their applications.

So if decent information advice and guidance systems are in place in the school or college, the five applications (to the five university choices) will be based on the reality of the AS results. This means that applicant will be able to make their firm and insurance choices in April in the full light of around 75 per cent of their raw scores being known. 
All of the above assumes that the current A level system continues in England, Northern Ireland and Wales.  However if AS levels are discontinued and we return to examination at the end of a two-year A level then I accept that the post qualification applications (known as PQA) system will deserve serious consideration.
The key to making any system work is having good advice and guidance, ideally from a qualified careers professional. Tim Miller, Deputy Head at JFS School in North London, says there is a close interrelationship between good teaching and good guidance.  'If both are of high quality they will be mutually supportive strategies to raise attainment and boost aspirations', he says. 'Well-taught students will perform better, aim for better universities and be better prepared for independent learning and success. Guidance can act as the glue here, helping provide students with high ambitions, showing them what is feasible and realistic, motivating them to perform in an even more committed way in sixth-form lessons'. 
Andy Gardner, author of 'The Higher-Education Advisers Handbook:  Practical steps for one-to-one guidance. Published by JFS School. Obtainable from Amazon.

User Comments

Rebecca Hanson - 10 Nov 2011

Some more concerns and a wider context.

I think your concerns are very reasonable Andy and to them I would add the worry that conditional offers are a strong motivating force for some students to apply themselves fully to their A-levels. Might they not bother so much if they were not striving to achieve their conditional offers?

To your comments regarding the accuracy of grade predictions I would add that this report (which is very recent) http://www.bis.gov.uk/assets/biscore/higher-education/docs/i/11-1043-investigating-accuracy-predicted-a-level-grades.pdf still indicates that students from more challenge backgrounds have their grades less accurately predicted and that this is one of the concerns this recommendation is seeking to address as these students are less likely to apply to top universities.

I absolutely agree with you that the processes students go through in preparation for university during 6th form are extremely important in social mobility and the swings may be more important than the roundabouts.... however I do feel that it is unlikely that 6th form teachers and managers will allow this features of 6th form life to be neglected.

I think greater insight into this issue only comes when we address the wider context of social mobility. At present we have a system which very strongly defines the extent to which social mobility has been achieved at the age of 18.

I think we need to redefine the way we see social mobility and make it more a lifelong thing and it seems to me that PQA is a structure which will help to facilitate this change.


Post a comment

After posting your comment you will need to confirm it by checking your email and clicking the confirmation that will be sent to you.

Comments will appear once reviewed for appropriate content.