Post-results no easy path to better access

December 23, 2010

It was good to see Mary Curnock Cook, the head of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, reviving interest in a post-qualification application (PQA) system for university places ("Ucas chief plans post-result result", 9 December). There is little doubt that such a system would produce a leaner, more efficient admissions experience than one based predominantly on pre-results applications; nevertheless, caution is still required.

First, assuming candidates still make multiple applications and popular courses continue to be heavily oversubscribed, PQA is unlikely to see the end of the "statistics game" played by admissions tutors. Rather, it would simply recalibrate the rules of the game, as universities would continue to "over-offer" to fill their quota of places, albeit to a lesser extent than before.

Second, according to your article, research for the Sutton Trust indicates that a PQA system may be "more equitable". It is often claimed that a post-qualification system would further "fair access" to the most competitive universities and courses for candidates from under-represented groups, who lack the confidence to apply to them before their results and/or have their attainment underestimated by their schools. Under PQA, the argument goes, such students would know their real academic worth and then shift their applications "upmarket".

In 2009, the University of Bristol's Widening Participation Research Cluster put this supposition to the empirical test for the first time. It compared successful applicants from widening-participation programmes and others who received offers across a set of courses provided by Russell Group and other UK universities, while controlling for candidates' academic ability.

Sure enough, prior to candidates knowing their A-level results, successful widening-participation applications were disproportionately made to the non-Russell Group courses, including by applicants who subsequently achieved grades that satisfied the group's average entry level for each subject.

However, when we repeated the analysis for those applying after their results, nothing had changed. Even armed with results that would qualify them for entry to the Russell Group courses, the widening-participation students stubbornly directed their successful applications elsewhere.

So a PQA system may not be "more equitable", and any university management team that sees it as an easy fix to satisfy the access conditions attached to £6,000-plus tutorial fees in the post-Browne world should think again.

Tony Hoare, Director, Widening Participation Research Cluster, University of Bristol.

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