Stuck in clearing limbo

After one exam mark scuppered his daughter’s university plans, Hans van Mourik Broekman joined those calling for admissions reform

September 29, 2016
Mick Marston illustration (29 September 2016)
Source: Mick Marston

With ever more students around the world going to university, establishing robust, transparent and consistent admission procedures has never been more important. However, my recent personal experience of the UK’s system suggests that it is crying out for reform.

The problem is rooted in the fact that British undergraduate places are offered on the basis of predicted school exam results. Hence, those whose actual results fall short have to be entered into the clearing system, through which they are matched with a university that has unfilled places.

As a headteacher, I am well used to the extremes of anxiety into which our leaving pupils are plunged on exam results day in August. However, experience suggests that they are generally in receipt of a new offer by 5pm, so I have generally viewed the intervening frenzy with a certain stoic curiosity.

This year, though, my own daughter’s name was on my list of those whose results had fallen short, so there could be no rising above the emotional roller coaster. It transpired that she had fallen a mark short in biology. We asked for and obtained an eventual re-mark, which led to a higher grade, but on results day a year of plans, interviews and open-day visits appeared shattered. There was no plan B.

The scrambled phone calls ensued: the impassioned pleas, the tears, the hugs and huddles of commiserating friends, the returned calls from harried admissions tutors. There was never a telephone call to explain a decision, or an offer of advice from the rejecting university. Like so many parents and pupils, we simply stared at a silent and seemingly implacable computer screen until the decision flashed up.

By 3pm, I had concluded that we could not allow this system to persist. Panic had taken hold and my daughter, lying exhausted on the living room floor, had fielded an unsolicited call from a university that I had never heard of offering her a place. Universities that had rejected her were now in touch saying that they would hold a place while awaiting her re-mark. We had landed in an absurd limbo in which one errant mark can determine a student’s destination.

But then we glimpsed the chance of a clearing place at a very good university on the website of Ucas: the UK’s centralised university admissions system. We called their number and a helpful person said that, unfortunately, my daughter had no chance. But I urged her to verify that with the faculty secretary and, about 45 minutes later, my daughter was in – and it was not yet 5pm.

So people said – and readers will repeat – “See: it always works out in the end”. But I wonder what would have happened if we had not made that call, or had taken that first refusal as authoritative and definitive. And I remain convinced that the UK’s monopolistic admissions system is totally rotten.

It is absurd to compel pupils to accept only two offers. My daughter has ended up at a university whose initial offer – after much agonised debate – she had declined: an offer that was identical to those made by the universities she had accepted, and which had now turned her away. There would have been so much less grief if she could have just held on to that initial offer.

It is equally absurd to make conditional offers where the conditions can be so completely broken as to render them meaningless. Several pupils in our school fell short of their offers by three or even four grades, but their chosen universities took them anyway. These “high offers”, when the real offer is much lower, look suspiciously like a deceptive marketing ploy to me, and I am aware of the high levels of concern about this in Australia, too. Meanwhile, other universities do not accept even a pause for a re-mark before issuing a rejection, no matter how close the applicant is to the threshold. There is no way of knowing which university will do what, or why.

One of our pupils was approached by a medical school from which he had initially been rejected on the basis of his predicted results. The admissions tutor pointed out that his actual results were very good: better, indeed, than some of the students who had been given offers. Would he like to turn up tomorrow and be interviewed for a place?

It is nonsense to suggest to a pupil in clearing that they should not panic and take their time. I checked my daughter’s course clearing vacancies a few days later. Most were gone. Her place had appeared on the Ucas page for only about 20 minutes. These timescales hardly suggest that there is time for sober reflection.

The university-run Ucas system is set up for the convenience and equanimity of universities, with the needs and experiences of students seemingly counting for little. Any other industry selling a £27,000 product would not get away with these restrictive and anti-consumer practices.

The solution is that British schoolchildren should sit their exams a little earlier and be allowed to submit their actual results to all their chosen universities, which would then make only firm offers. This would not preclude universities interviewing and encouraging pupils to apply. It might be more work for them, but would lead to better matches between students and universities. It would also be more humane and transparent.

As for me, from now on I shall spend less time congratulating my successful pupils. Instead, I will spend the whole of results day with those in clearing. It is not a nice place to be.

Hans van Mourik Broekman is principal of Liverpool College.

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