Disappointing response to university admissions plans

31 Oct 2011

It is good to see that the UCAS proposal for an overdue modernisation of the universities' admission system has made a big splash in the media -- but disappointing to see the predictably over-cautious response from the Russell Group and the negative spin that appears to be coming from government.

According to the BBC, the government has let it be known that  it has 'no appetite' for significant reform. This weasel-like, off-the-record response is in contrast to the on-the-record comments from the Universities Minister, David Willetts, who appears to be taking a much more open-minded approach.

The UCAS report  www.ucas.com/reviews/admissionsprocessreview/ is a very thorough analysis of the current system which has not changed substantially for 50 years.

It proposes that students should apply to university only after they have received their exam results. UCAS  says change is needed because the current system is ‘no longer fit for purpose’ as it is inefficient, cumbersome and lacks transparency.

The changes, which could begin in 2016, would involve bringing forward the date of A levels so that results are published by early July instead of mid-August as now. This would cut three weeks from A level teaching time and would compress the time for the exam boards to mark and grade papers.

 Students would then have until the third week in July to apply to universities. Offers would be made by mid September with the start of the university term being pushed back until early October.

The strongest argument for moving to a post-qualifications system is that predicted grades are so often inaccurate: an applicant with three predicted A Levels has only a 10% chance of all predictions being correct.

The UCAS proposals could encourage students who do better than predicted to raise their university aspirations. Since students from poorer homes are more likely than others to receive under-predictions, this could improve their chance of getting into better universities on merit.

The current system favours candidates from schools which know just how to play the university admissions game, in particularly the value of getting applications in early.

The biggest changes from the UCAS proposals would be felt by schools rather than universities. So it is interesting that head teachers have supported the change, while the Russell Group of universities has been the most reluctant to shift from the status quo.

However, one teachers' union - the NASUWT -  expressed concern that schools are being asked to make all the changes for the convenience of universities. However the union did acknowledge there could be some benefits for students from removing the need for predicted grades. 

After the substantial work on the proposals, let's hope that all parties involved - schools, universities, exam boards and the government - focus on what is best for the students not what causes them the least disruption.

Sadly, precedent suggests that the authorities will favour the safe route of inaction - the last Labour government was committed to a post-qualification system, but inertia within government, and opposition from some universities, ensured it did not happen.



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