Editorial - Grade predictions are a mug's game, but universities are stuck on admissions mess

15th July 2011 at 01:00

Those teachers not tempted to pack a copy of last month's white paper into higher education along with the rest of their summer reading may be in danger of missing a vital piece of news. Buried in the confusion over fees is a recommendation of remarkable clarity: the Government will await the outcome of an ongoing review of post-qualification admissions before making any changes to the system. It's enough to make one forget the sunscreen.

Students of PQA will not be surprised. After all, the proposal to replace the current set-up, where pupils apply to universities with predicted grades rather than actual ones, has been knocking around for years. Seven years ago the Schwartz report came to the conclusion that we should adopt PQA. Years before that a procession of committees of vice-chancellors, headteachers and MPs had deliberated, ruminated, assessed the options and reached the conclusion that ... PQA was the one to go for. So why would the Government wait upon yet another review, a sceptic may ask? Because, as one former vice-chancellor frankly put it, "Everyone says they're in favour of PQA but nobody wants it". And by "nobody" he meant some very important somebodies - universities.

The most salient argument for PQA is that it is far fairer to make an offer of a university place based on results rather than guesswork, particularly as more than half of all predicted grades are wrong. Some 47 per cent of forecasts overestimate the eventual result, 9 per cent underestimate. Predictions tend to be out by only a grade, but that can be enough to scupper a youngster's chances.

Moreover, PQA advocates argue that armed with a solid record of achievement pupils are more likely to make informed decisions about what they want to study and where, particularly in the case of disadvantaged students who may lack the necessary guidance. They also point out that PQA is efficient because it does not require a two-stage admissions process and does away with the mess of clearing.

Universities, however, are reluctant. They whisper that PQA would mean they had only five weeks to assess applications and they need 11. And that would mean mucking around with terms. Unkind souls counter that universities don't seem to have problems making instant judgments during clearing and the real reason they don't want to change is because admissions officers do not want to work during the summer.

Ungenerous thoughts aside, advances in technology have reduced the time needed to mark exams and process applications to the point where PQA should entail a delay to the university term of no more than two or three weeks. Is a fortnight too much to ask for a fairer admissions system? That's a tough question. Best ask a committee.


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