The UK’s admissions system should empower student choice

A post-qualifications admissions system would be more transparent and would help students to make better choices about their higher education, argues Graeme Atherton

August 14, 2019
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The UK Labour Party’s commitment to implement a post-qualifications admissions (PQA) system, if it wins a general election, could not be timelier. The numbers of students receiving unconditional offers and in clearing are rising; progress in widening access remains far too slow, especially to more selective institutions; and we are more aware than ever of the pressure placed on teenagers by an increasingly high-stakes examination system.

It appears almost universally accepted that change is required, with not one but two reviews of the admissions system imminent in the autumn – one from Universities UK, and another from the Office for Students. But the tendency thus far has been to shy away from the major anachronism in our system that acts as a barrier preventing the clearly needed improvements.

Politicians and educators alike cite too many challenges to a reform that, from the outside, appears both logical and fair.

The reality is that change is possible. Research I led on for the University and College Union last year showed that other admissions systems based on PQA are not just possible but the norm. That other countries are doing something is not reason on its own to implement change, but looking at other systems illustrates that perhaps we are not treating our students as well as we like to think we are.

The smoke and mirrors of predicted grades, clearing and the range of conditional/non-conditional offers would not be acceptable in most countries. Their students have a right to transparency and consistency when they make choices about their futures that UK students in the current system do not have.

It is true to say, as was argued by Sir Chris Husbands recently, that implementing any reform will not be straightforward. It will require changes in how we support students to make choices about higher education.

But we need to be clear from the outset that this is the key principle that should inform what happens at the end of compulsory education and the start of higher education itself.

One of the primary reasons that change appears so difficult is that we have a system that belongs to a time when enabling student choice was not really an issue because only a small minority of the population entered higher education.

Indeed, university admission still has to fit around how A levels and the first year of higher education are delivered, as it did in the 1970s and 1980s.

We need to design a system that is appropriate for today, when far more young people enter higher education and, as Husbands acknowledged in his article, when far more are likely to do so in the coming decade. A change in mindset is required that recognises that supporting student choice and transition must become the priority in any admissions process.

In collaboration with the UCU, I produced another paper earlier this year outlining how a PQA system for the UK could look. The most important principle in the paper is that implementing PQA is not just a matter of changing when students apply to higher education and adjusting exam/entry timetables accordingly.

Rather, it has to be part of that fundamental shift in how we interact with and support students. At the centre of this shift is recognising that decision-making about university entry begins far earlier than the final year of A level/level 3.

To make PQA work, a guaranteed offer of higher education information, advice and guidance from age 15 onwards should be part of any Labour package.

An argument levelled against PQA is that it will require more teachers to take time from their summer break to support students, in particular those from disadvantaged backgrounds. At present that is probably true, which is why significant investment in earlier information, advice and guidance is needed so that the system is no longer propped up by last-minute advice.

Alongside this investment needs to come innovation. In the paper, we describe the study choice check being used in the Netherlands. This online questionnaire is taken by would-be students before they apply for a higher education programme to measure their expectations of the course against the reality. The aim is to avoid mismatches that often lead to under-performance and dropout.

PQA will require movement in at least one of final-year A level/level 3 or the first year of HE – we argue for a later start to the first year. Given that many countries have a generic year 1 and produce high-quality graduates, a later start of four weeks need not have a significant impact.

The later start could also allow disadvantaged students to prepare better for HE, with an expansion of bridging courses, which have proved effective at supporting transition for these students and which give academics more time to get ready for the year ahead.

The extent of change required by a PQA system should not be underestimated. But neither should the benefits. A PQA system will help students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, make better choices because they will have more time to decide; it will be more transparent; it will reduce the pressure on teachers and college lecturers; and it will help academic staff prepare students better.

Schools, colleges, universities, learners and a range of other agencies, in particular Ucas, all invest considerable effort in the process of higher education admissions. It is time we had a system that these efforts deserve.

Graeme Atherton is head of access at the member group London Higher and is director of NEON, an organisation that supports those involved in widening access to higher education.

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