Consensus is a rare phenomenon nowadays, but one could finally be building among those who send students on to university (schools and colleges), and those accepting them.
The many problems besetting higher education’s application system could be solved by a single change: shifting to a system of Post-Qualification Application (PQA). In other words, changing the pattern so that students apply to university when they already have their A-level results.
A report published by the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) notes that “the current system simply isn’t fit for purpose. It was designed in the 1960s, when only about 5 per cent of school-leavers went on to study at university, and there is an urgent need for reform and greater transparency.”
Amen to that. The past year, in particular, has seen it throw up one problem after another. Most recently universities have been under fire from schools and colleges for making unconditional offers to nearly a quarter of all applicants. There is concern that pupils holding unconditional offers will take their foot off the academic gas, and under-achieve at A Level.
By contrast, and less often cited as an issue (though it worries me), there’s the sheer pressure on candidates holding high conditional offers: they work their socks off to get top grades (too often beyond their ability), and their anxiety continues until results are published in mid-August.
The Sutton Trust reckons that schools and colleges predicting grades for high-achieving applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to be over-cautious and to under-predict, thereby ruling them out of top institutions and courses.
Any visitor from Mars, reading the press on this issue, would wonder why we have persisted with such a dog’s dinner for so long. Yet it’s clear that, notwithstanding what UCU claims as 70 per cent support for PQA among admissions staff, the union has a fight on its hands.
One influential voice raised against the switch this week was that of the boss of Ucas, the organisation that centrally administers just about all of the nation’s university applications. The most vulnerable pupils (those without significant support at home, for example) will, says Clare Marchant, be left alone without school advice from mid-August until September: “Where you’ve got to make the biggest decision of your life to date… your teachers will not be around. So you’re just going to be left.”
I’ll overlook the crude assumption that teachers would simply leave their students stranded: and, indeed, any new system should be designed not to encroach on teachers’ hard-earned holidays. But it’s not difficult to picture how the timings of exams and even terms might be tweaked (not turned upside down) in order to make this work. The UCU report suggests pulling the exams forward and starting the university term later. Opponents have been quick to create obstacles to implementing the proposal, but far too slow to acknowledge the need for change and therefore profess their willingness to plan and negotiate a way forward.
Ms Marchant asks whether schools and universities are ready for major changes in their cycle. “I would argue,” she continued, “that they’ve got other much more important things to deal with.”
More important? We all know the deep-seated problems in the current system and that change must come. Are we really prepared collectively to throw up our hands in despair, wailing feebly that to improve matters would just be too difficult? If so, shame on us.
This is about so much more than a mere shift in timetabling, even in the shape of the academic year. The UCU report states: “A higher-education system should be… a set of support structures that enables students to make decisions about their higher-education courses and institutions.”
It should be, but right now it isn’t. If we fail, at last, to address the problem, our lack of courage will go down in history as – what? The educational equivalent of parliament’s incompetent dithering over Brexit, perhaps. And who’d want that kind of epitaph?
Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets at @bernardtrafford