This week, around 300,000 18-year-olds will learn whether their A-level grades are good enough to get them to the university of their choice. These young people have had to navigate a system that is opaque in much of its decision-making and unfair to those who do not obtain their predicted grades.
For those who don’t make their required grades, the rush for clearing places began yesterday, although the staggering rise in the number of unconditional offers – from 2,985 in 2013 to 67,915 in 2018 – will reduce the pressure on clearing this year.
This increase means nearly a quarter (23 per cent) of applicants have received an unconditional offer – an unpopular statistic with schools that see students easing off when they should be aiming for their maximum grade.
The removal of the cap on student numbers has also reduced some of the speed and tension of the clearing process.
However, unconditional offers and the removal of the cap, as well as the undoubted efficiency of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas), do not mean that the UK has a perfect applications system.
According to a recent report by Dr Graeme Atherton for the University and College Union, no other country has a system based on predicted grades, which are notoriously inaccurate and which often discriminate against applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Unfair on disadvantaged students
The Sutton Trust has long supported the call for a post-qualification admissions (PQA) process, citing the evidence from Ucas that at least 1,000 high-achieving disadvantaged students per year have their grades under-predicted, while schools with more pushy parents and schools with more experience of the complexities, tactics and nuances of the university admissions process tend to over-predict the A-level grades of their students.
This is not a new demand for PQA. The higher education sector, through the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP), began to consider PQA in 1994. In 2004, a commission of the Secondary Heads Association (of which I was general secretary at the time), comprising the chief executive of Ucas, university admissions tutors and headteachers, called for a two-stage applications process – a registration phase and a post-results application phase.
In the same year, the report of the government steering group on fair access to higher education under Professor Steven Schwartz was unequivocal in its advocacy of PQA. The secretary of state, Charles Clarke, said that he was persuaded by the arguments and asked Sir Alan Wilson to lead work on implementation, which foundered on the detail of the practical arrangements and opposition from universities and some schools.
In 2011, Ucas put forward its own case for PQA and revealed that only 45 per cent of predicted grades were accurate, with this figure falling to 39 per cent for the lowest socioeconomic groups. Now that the more reliable indicator of AS grades is no longer available, grade predictions are likely to be even less accurate in future.
Applications after results
In a PQA system, disadvantaged students with high grades would be more likely to apply to the most selective universities, which are currently turning a blind eye to their applications because of their lower predicted grades.
If the UK is serious about closing the attainment and opportunity gap between disadvantaged students and their better-off peers, then the reform of admissions to higher education should be firmly on the table.
There are many ways to implement a PQA system and Graeme Atherton’s paper studies the arrangements in 29 countries where students apply after their results.
In an efficient and effective system, there has to be a period of preparation. Support for applicants is an essential part of any successful admissions system – helping students in finding information, analysing it in the light of their abilities and interests, and then providing support at the point of final decision, especially for students whose grades are better or worse than expected.
Space needs to be found for the applications and determination of places. Currently, A levels take place in June, with results in mid-August, and the university term starts at the end of September. These three elements of the admissions system – the schools and colleges, the awarding bodies and the universities – each needs to give a little in order to create space for a successful PQA system. A levels could be a week or two earlier, reducing teaching time by a small proportion, exams could be marked and results produced more quickly, and the start of the first year at university could be a week or two later.
The Ucas report in 2011 concluded that the system needed changing to PQA because many applicants were making choices about what and where to study before they were fully ready; the effect of predicted grades, insurance choices and clearing is a complex system that lacks transparency for many applicants and is inefficient and cumbersome for universities; and only the best-informed applicants and advisers are able to optimise Ucas applications, creating a divide between applicants who receive effective advice and those who do not.
It is time to consider how the UK could have a fairer and less opaque system.
Sir John Dunford was a secondary headteacher, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and National Pupil Premium Champion