Leader: Drop the guessing games

The process of applying for a university place is long past its use-by date. It's time for post-qualifications applications

February 10, 2011

Another week, another row about social mobility. Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, is flexing his muscles to make elite universities broaden their social intake if they wish to charge tuition fees of more than £6,000 a year. This has alarmed educationally privileged commentators in the right-wing press, who warn that he must not do this by "crude social engineering". (When applied to the poor, social engineering is always "crude"; presumably paying for a leg-up on the ladder of life is "refined" social engineering.)

The job of universities is not to improve social mobility; it is to take the best brains wherever they are found and educate them for the common good. Social equity is the responsibility of the government of the day. Access to higher education, however, is another thing: universities do have a duty to see that it is fair.

It was the widening participation argument that led to several past attempts to overhaul university admissions and introduce post-qualifications applications. PQA makes sense: students do not apply until they know their grades - no teacher predictions, no fannying about. Indeed, "'the developing consensus' seemed unstoppable; like motherhood, who could be against it?" wrote Anthony Hoare and Rebecca Aitchison in a 2009 Higher Education Review paper, "PQA: Pretty Questionable Assumptions". "The PQA logic seemed unchallengeable. It removed the 'lottery' of the current admissions system, based on potentially inaccurate A-level predictions...PQA would establish that most beloved of all democratic metaphors, the level playing field."

The argument landed one supporter, Bill Rammell, then minister for higher education (now deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Plymouth), in hot water when he said the existing system was least fair to the poorest, citing a study by University of Oxford researchers. As ever, the picture was more complex - just 9 per cent of grades were under-predicted; in 47 per cent of cases, teachers over-predicted; and students from lower socio-economic groups were the most likely to get inflated forecasts.

"Everyone says they're in favour of PQA but nobody wants it," Roger Brown, then head of Southampton Solent University, said in 2005. "It would be a better system than what we have now, but there has never been enough political agreement on how you would do it." But now, after three Universities UK and two education department reviews, the political will seems evident. David Willetts, the universities and science minister, backs the idea, and PQA is likely to feature in March's White Paper.

The latest cheerleader for change is the chief of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, Mary Curnock Cook. As she notes, the admissions process has stood still while everything else has changed, including numbers of applicants (50,000 in 1962; 700,000 in 2010), their diversity, their qualifications, the courses to which they apply and the universities that offer them. It is time to move on, she says in our cover story, and find "a process that best serves the needs of applicants and institutions, not a bipolar consideration of pre- or post-qualifications admissions in a system conceived five decades ago in a vastly different educational landscape".

The world has changed, technology has advanced and university budgets are tight. An efficient PQA system would save the sector time and money. It is an idea whose time has come.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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