Don't change the UK university application system – it works just fine

Despite concern about the use of predicted grades, Mary Curnock Cook believes the way students apply for university works well

December 8, 2016
University application approved
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Today, the University and College Union has called for a “complete overhaul" of the UK admissions system, saying that students should apply to university after they receive their results. A new report on predicted grades by the UCL Institute of Education’s Gill Wyness, the union says, is “a damning indictment of a broken system”.

Currently in the UK, students apply to higher education institutions using grades based on the predictions of their schoolteachers. However, the report claims that just 16 per cent of these predictions turn out to be accurate. 

Leaving aside what I would call a somewhat clumsy use of the data in the report, the UCU is drawing simplistic conclusions with little regard for what is in the interests of students. It is true that grades are usually predicted optimistically, and every admissions professional knows this. Teachers don’t think of the predicted grades as being a forecast of what the student will get – rather, they are signalling to their students, and the universities to which they apply, their potential to achieve. 

Far from being broken, the system works remarkably well, with nearly three-quarters of students placed at their first choice institution. There is also an efficient post-qualifications (PQA) or clearing system available for those who change their minds, or prefer to apply after their results. Some 65,000 students used this PQA service in 2016.

It is also not the case that only 16 per cent of predicted grades are right – the correct interpretation is that only about 16 per cent of students have no net deviation at all from their predicted grades across three A-level results. Nevertheless, the UCU seems to think that this is reason to remove the choice from students to get their university applications out of the way early in their final year at school or college, attend university open days and receive a conditional offer to focus their studies. 

Our recent statistical report shows that the relationship between a student’s predicted and achieved grades is complex, multidimensional, and influenced by the level of offer they receive. 

However, even when a host of other factors are taken into account, including prior GCSE attainment and the type of course an offer is held with, we know that poorer applicants remain more likely to miss their predicted grades (that is, to be over-predicted). But it is a flawed argument to say that these students are disadvantaged by being more frequently over-predicted – the opposite is more likely to be true, and we can show that receiving an offer is a positive motivator to work hard.

For the small and reducing number of students whose potential is underestimated through their predicted grades, good advice and support on results day is available at school or through Ucas to ensure they can change their application if they want to.

Our Student Lens Report provides insights into the things that act as barriers to higher education, indicating that we have more important issues to address than trying to squeeze some 350,000 applicants (each with several choices) through the system in the short weeks between exam results and the start of university terms. A key finding is that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are particularly anxious about practical issues such as accommodation and finance, which would also need to be resolved in this shorter window. 

The UCU proposal is much more of an “impossible job” than continuing to use predicted grades to give students the chance to make informed choices over a period of months rather than weeks. 

It is always good to challenge the status quo, but Ucas listens to its customers, including the 700,000-plus students who use our service every year. Their high satisfaction scores are at odds with this call for change in a system that gives students choices and clearly works, to one that takes options away and probably wouldn’t.

Mary Curnock Cook is chief executive of Ucas, which processes UK applications to higher education institutions.

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Print headline: The UK university application system doesn’t need changing

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