The other week, I found myself on the Jeremy Vine show having an argument with a university vice-chancellor.
The issue was a report from Ucas, the university admissions service, showing that more than a third of 18-year-olds applying to university in 2018 received a form of unconditional offer before completing their qualifications.
I’ve written before about how damaging this trend is. A headteacher in Bridlington told me of the devastating effect of students being given guaranteed places, sometimes with £1,000 bursaries dangled before them, to accept offers at certain institutions. She told me that many of her students then stopped attending school, instead finding themselves part-time jobs, and in some cases ending up on degree courses, such as marine biology, having gained – wait for it – two U grades and an E.
As I explained to Jeremy Vine’s listeners: “This bums-on-seats approach isn’t good for the student, the school or the university.”
The response of the vice-chancellor surprised me. He said that the reason universities had to make many unconditional offers was because teachers were so unreliable in predicting the grades students would finally get. Thus universities, the logic seemed to be, had to take matters into their own hands.
Well, a closer look at the Ucas "end of cycle" report shows which of us, in our argument on Radio 2, was right.
The answer: both of us.
'Messy and amateurish process'
Because, yes, 34.4 per cent of 18-year-old applicants from England, Northern Ireland, and Wales “received an offer that could be considered unconditional” before completing their qualifications, continuing “an annual upward trend that began in 2013”.
And, yes, most applicants missed out on their teacher’s A-level predictions by two or more grades: 67 per cent of those holding unconditional offers fell into this category, compared with 56 per cent holding a conditional offer.
It’s a reminder that the current admissions system belongs to a different era. Nowadays, society expects up to half of its young people to go into higher education. The reliance on predictions and the subsequent mismatch with actual grades accounts for the annual ritual of anxious phone calls, revised offers and the scramble into the clearing system. It’s the hallmark of a messy and oddly amateurish entrance process.
And the statistics show that the proportion of students missing their predictions by two or more grades is 11 percentage points higher among those holding unconditional offers. This is where the issues of poor predictions and unconditional offers are inextricably linked.
Some might say, of course, that this doesn’t matter if students are guaranteed a place, whatever grade they get. But such an argument leads us back to that Bridlington head who saw her students stop attending, thereby missing out on precisely the study habits and knowledge that they will need for success at university.
Which in turn undermines the reputation of universities as places of academic rigour.
So, what’s the answer?
Complete rethink needed
Perhaps now is the time to return to the idea of a system of post-qualification admissions in which students would apply to university after receiving their grades.
A report published by the University and College Union earlier this year looked at admissions systems in 29 countries and found that only England, Wales and Northern Ireland have a system where the offer of a place is based on predicted grades.
The report also showed there are huge differences between higher education systems.
In China and South Korea, for example, there are high-pressure national university exams delivered annually on one or two days of the year that determine higher-education entry for the vast majority of students. In Korea, the College Scholastic Ability Test is deemed so important as to lead to planes being grounded so as not to disturb candidates.
Clearly, admissions processes reflect very different educational approaches and cannot be easily transplanted from one country to another. A post-qualification admissions system would, of course, be logistically challenging. It would need a complete rethink of the way we do things. There appears to be no political will to introduce such a system. But then there’s not much political will for anything other than Brexit.
In the short term, we really need universities to desist from making so many unconditional offers – especially when they are proffered on the condition that students accept the place as their firm choice. But in the longer term, let’s look again at what a post-results application service might look like.
Because if we’re going to have any more on-air arguments between schools and universities, it would be better to have them exploring solutions rather than playing an unseemly blame game over a very real problem.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders