We should take this time to address the flaws in UK admissions

Post-qualification applications will greatly improve access to UK universities, says Robin Hardman 

April 4, 2020
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As ministers scramble to formulate plans for awarding A-level and GCSE grades based on “moderated assessments”, their attention will rightly be on finding a short-term fix to the problems presented by the coronavirus epidemic.

But once the dust has settled on the present crisis, they should also seek to address the fundamental flaws in the existing system to ensure that – further public health crises notwithstanding – the next cohort of sixth formers can operate in a much fairer and more efficient environment.

The upheaval caused by the outbreak has exposed once again the problems with using predicted grades as part of the Ucas process. Dr Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, was quoted in The Times recently decrying the fact that “predicted grades are wrong four times out of five and discriminate against the already disadvantaged”.

While it is unavoidable in these extraordinary circumstances that predicted grades will need to play some role in the awarding of A-level grades – and, by extension, in the allocation of university places – in this cycle, ministers should grasp the opportunity to make changes in time for the next round of applications.

The recent news that university vice-chancellors favour withholding offers until after students have received their A-level results has been hailed in some quarters as a possible solution to the problems caused by increasing numbers of unconditional offers.

But while the proposed reforms would undoubtedly be an improvement on the current system, they would not adequately address many of the most pressing issues facing the higher education sector, including predicted grade inflation and the disparity between the success rates of applicants to the most competitive universities from privileged and underprivileged backgrounds.

I reported for The Spectator last month on the much lower percentages of Oxbridge offer-holders from disadvantaged backgrounds: just 63 per cent of students from under-represented areas who received offers from Cambridge in 2018 were admitted into the university compared with 81 per cent from areas with the highest rates of degree-level education. Meanwhile socio-economically disadvantaged offer-holders from Oxford were 10 per cent less likely to take up their places than their more privileged peers.

Although withholding admissions decisions until after A-level results would negate the problem of disadvantaged students having their hopes of studying at Oxford and Cambridge dashed by missing conditional offers, the proposed reform would do nothing to close the attainment gap at A level, which continues to be the biggest obstacle to improving access to the most competitive courses.

Instead of the unambitious proposal favoured by vice-chancellors, which would still see students make applications on the strength of their predicted grades, a far more effective reform would be to overhaul the entire system by requiring students to apply for courses after receiving their A-level grades.

This system, which has also been mooted by the Office for Students as an alternative to withholding offers, would allow students to target their applications more realistically, removing the present farce caused by inflated predicted grades, which artificially boost some applicants’ chances based on levels of attainment that they are unlikely ever to reach.

The current process of pre-A level admissions – and its proposed replacement – both place an unhealthy reliance on these grades, formulated by schools and colleges without any central oversight, often to the detriment of underprivileged students.

Research by the Sutton Trust has found that many high-attaining disadvantaged students have their grades under-predicted, which could mean that they don’t apply to the universities and courses most suited to their talents, while their more privileged counterparts will often access places at more competitive universities on the basis of inflated predictions.

Post-qualification applications would require a far greater overhaul of universities’ admissions procedures, and would most likely necessitate a later start to the undergraduate year. While the universities are naturally keen to mitigate any disruption, beginning undergraduate courses in January, rather than in September or October, would open up myriad benefits: students would be able to earn money before embarking on the stratospherically costly experience of university, undertake work experience in sectors that interest them, or go travelling for a few months without needing to have an entire gap year – typically an option available only to the more privileged.

Universities would also be able to offer intensive foundation courses to students – particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds in receipt of contextualised offers – who might otherwise struggle with the immediate transition to higher education.

When relative normality is restored and the wheels of government begin to turn again, policymakers will face a once-in-a-generation opportunity to recraft the ailing higher education sector. This Conservative government has not been afraid to make bold claims about its reforming zeal, and universities have been bracing themselves ever since Gavin Williamson used his first major speech as education secretary last year to warn vice-chancellors to “put their house in order”.

If the Tories are to succeed in enacting their “levelling up” agenda, to which the prime minister and his advisers are apparently so committed, they should consider how their higher education reforms might improve the experiences of all students across the UK.

Instead of settling for a piecemeal compromise, the government should stick true to its vision and adopt a strategy that will go further towards levelling up students’ opportunities across the socio-economic spectrum.

Robin Hardman is a sixth form teacher.

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