Universities are standing in the way of fairer admissions

There's a much-needed reform that would provide a fairer system of entry to higher education. Almost everyone agrees it would be an improvement, but it will probably never happen.

More than 650,000 teenagers are digesting yesterday's A-level results (see pages 6-7 and 22-26). Whether they did better or worse than expected, they may well wonder why they must go through a year-long process that involves guesswork from teachers, a carefully crafted piece of writing that many universities will disregard and, for some, a mad scramble to secure a place.

"The university application process is laden with complication, delay and continuous unease," writes Tony Diver, a sixth-form student in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, in a piece on the TES website (bit.lyTonyDiver).

Applying after results, rather than before, would be more accurate and far less painful. It's a suggestion that's been made many times, including by Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of university admissions service Ucas. And it's backed by seven out of 10 admissions staff, according to a survey by the University and College Union. The head of the University of Bedfordshire, Bill Rammell, has signalled his support twice: once as minister for higher education and now as vice-chancellor.

A comprehensive report came out firmly in favour and highlighted the unreliability of predicted grades, a problem that has worsened over the years, as last week's Cambridge Assessment research emphasises (bit.lyGradePredictions). With the sidestepping of AS-levels, the guesswork can only increase.

On the face of it, the solution appears simple: either schools change when exams are taken or universities change when the autumn term begins.

However, the last attempt to address the issue ended up in a squabble. Schools argued that plans to cut short the summer term were inequitable, particularly for students not going to university. It was felt by schools, colleges, awarding bodies, exams regulator Ofqual and universities that losing three weeks' teaching time would be damaging to curriculum delivery, student achievement and standards.

Universities were also worried that they would have to employ admissions staff throughout the year and that crucial research could be adversely affected. In the end, there was a feeling that schools and colleges were unfairly being expected to make more changes than higher education. So the idea was quashed.

Fairness does indeed sit at the heart of all this - not for institutions but for pupils. It's not only about disadvantaged young people, which is where the argument has faltered before, because the facts did not support the rhetoric. Post-qualification applications would be fairer to all pupils.

If a young person were buying a car, you wouldn't send them for a test drive, arm them with a load of guesstimates and tell them to promise the dealer a large sum of money without knowing which vehicle they would get in return. So why should the pound;9,000-plus we are asking them to spend on higher education be any different?

Students are paying large tuition fees. The onus should be on universities to change how they operate (and to fund it - they can afford to and a smooth transition is in their interest).

Schools should put pressure on universities to do so. Our young people deserve better.


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