As those students still negotiating with admission departments know, exam grades can feel like a currency to be bartered for a university place. For most, the whole process of university applications can feel like high-stakes decisions are being made about their future by faceless administrators who cannot be seen, heard or, heaven forbid, spoken to.
Were exam grades entirely trustworthy, exams clearly fit for purpose and the system completely transparent, this might be justifiable. However, in the absence of confidence that any of that is true, I wonder if there is a better, fairer way of choosing candidates.
At the moment, high-achieving students from all types of schools default to the trusted, small group of high-tariff universities. The increasing perception, however, is that some of those universities seem neither to be too scrupulous about sticking to their offers, nor to be using particularly sophisticated criteria to make the right match with their prospective students. In the spaghetti junction of today’s routes to higher education, I think they’re missing a trick. And I think some students, too, are driving blind.
Qualifications beyond compare
‘Spaghetti junction’ may be no exaggeration. The Ucas tariff table, which officially tells us how different 18-plus qualifications align, runs to 173 pages, and covers a Byzantine maze of exams, coursework and routes. It is quite literally impenetrable. We default to talking about A levels, of course, but most 18-year olds don’t do them – they do Highers or BTecs or other Level 3 qualifications. All of which means that it’s questionable whether grades from all these exams can be sensibly compared or used on their own (even with a school and personal reference) to choose the right student for the right course.
The different exam boards at A level also operate in three separate regulatory systems within the UK (Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland), and the fact that all of these have been changed again this year, too, makes it even harder for us all to decide what the right place for each student is – the right aspiration, the right environment, the right route.
As well as the changing exam system, universities have been reformed recently. Many of the most famous expanded massively when controls on student numbers went, marketing themselves as being the answer to everyone’s aspirations, offering comprehensive course coverage and superb student experience in ever-growing cohort numbers. But even as they fill their ranks, they seem to many outsiders to have become less discriminating, not just in their offer-making in a shrinking "market", but in their judgments about which student and which university are the right "fit". It’s all become a bit, well, mechanical.
The obvious illustration of this is the unconditional offer to the student who looks a decent bet. But this year students from all kinds of backgrounds have also been accepted to first-choice Russell Group universities with one, two, three or even four grades lower than the original offer they were made. How, you might ask, can we fashion a credible offer-making system when the final "price" of a place is so much lower than the original deal?
Make more use of interviews
So, here’s an idea. Make more use of interviews, that old-fashioned, fascinating, face-to-face communication still beloved by independent schools.
Those secondary schools able to select their pupils have been here before. For over 50 years we have faced the problem of the currency of diagnostic tests at around the age of 10 or 11 that are trustworthy up to a point, but tarnished by reputation, statistical anomalies and, frankly, some unfairnesses. So, independent schools interview. We don’t necessarily sit every 11-year-old down one-on-one: we might do group activities, combine a meeting with an open day, try somehow to get under the skin of the child and test out attitude, commitment, the extent to which this will be someone we can work with.
At my own school, I can think of several examples of a marginal applicant on exam terms who has shone on interview and proved to be a gem, and others who looked decent in exam but proved on meeting to be not suited to us. The best on the exam day, of course, will be terrific, and the academically weaker not necessarily right, but for most of our applicants, an interview is really valuable.
HE is widely selective, so could this approach be extended there? Why, when the exam landscape is so complex and so turbulent, and when universities actually don’t take as much notice of it as we thought, shouldn’t they meet and interact with more of their applicants? They already do for medics, with Oxbridge candidates and in many "creative" courses. But I still think there would be an advantage in doing so more widely.
Regardless of the candidate numbers involved, admissions services have significant resources, and I bet they would find that they build up relationships and find out strengths and weaknesses that enrich learning all round. It would also future-proof them for the moment in time: from the mid-2020s, there will be a major demographic bulge in 18-year-olds applying and the current muddle of complexity and uncertainty will become much more of a liability.
Faced with the increasing automation of modern life, my mother is apt to complain, "I just want a conversation with someone." Surely that deal between a prospective student and a life-changing academic home is also worth more than a conversation?
Chris Ramsey is headmaster of Whitgift school in Croydon and the HE spokesman for the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ College