Fairer by far

Steven Schwartz recommended the adoption of PQA in a 2004 report. It went unheeded, but he still believes it would be a better system for UK universities

February 10, 2011

Unable to effect significant reforms, a frustrated education minister decides to conduct a seance to consult the ghost of the US philosopher of education, John Dewey.

"How do I bring about change in higher education?" asks the minister.

"Do you want the realistic way or the miraculous way?" Dewey replies.

"I prefer the realistic way, of course."

"OK," says Dewey, "I will send a million angels down from heaven to visit every university in the land. They will sprinkle angel dust and, lo and behold, they will be reformed."

"If that is the realistic way, then what, pray tell, is the miraculous way?"

"Oh," says Dewey, "that's when the universities reform themselves."

This is an old joke, and rather unfair, but it certainly drew laughs from John Denham and Bill Rammell - then secretary of state for innovation, universities and skills, and minister for higher education, respectively - during a 2008 conference call about post-qualifications applications.

Those not intimate with university admissions might be surprised to learn that in England admission offers are based on an applicant's predicted A-level grades. These predictions, which are made by schools, are notoriously unreliable. Half or more are wrong. Most errors are over-optimistic, but a small number underestimate students' ultimate performance.

The reason that I was in a conference call with ministers is because the 2004 report on university admissions, Fair Admissions to Higher Education: Recommendations for Good Practice, which I was asked to lead, recommended a switch to PQA: that is, to use an applicant's actual A-level grades rather than predicted grades to make admission decisions.

My review was not the first to make this recommendation. Years before my report, PQA had already been recommended by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, the Department for Education, the Commission on the Organisation of the School Year and the Select Committee on Education and Employment. The Secondary Heads' Association and the Girls' Day School Trust were also in favour, as was the Sutton Trust.

There are three reasons why PQA is better than the current system. First, it is more efficient. Under PQA there is no need for a second stage in the admissions process to confirm whether the predicted grades were actually achieved. A second reason for preferring PQA is the already mentioned unreliability of school predictions. The third reason is that decisions based on predicted grades may disadvantage applicants whose marks are underestimated by their schools. Those who expect lower marks may not apply to selective universities because they believe they will be rejected. Had they known their real marks, which were higher than predicted, they might have applied and been successful.

You may think that these arguments in favour of PQA are sensible. Many reviewers, educators, schools and politicians concur. So who objects and why? Well, the universities object on the grounds that waiting for A-level results before making admission decisions would leave insufficient time for them to fully evaluate applications. Curiously, the same universities that make this argument are able to make instant admission decisions during clearing. Knowing this, some unkind people have averred that the real reason universities resist PQA is because their admissions officers do not want to work during the summer.

A year after my review's recommendation, the education department devised a plan for the introduction of PQA. In 2006, responsibility for instigating the plan was given to a "delivery partnership" led by the higher education sector itself. This was tantamount to choosing Dewey's "miraculous" option.

Alas, the age of miracles had passed; in 2008 there was still no PQA. No wonder the ministers felt frustrated. But after considering the pros and cons, the government chose not to exert pressure on universities to achieve PQA. There are always many issues to fight, and politicians must judge where their efforts will do the most good.

Also, to be fair, there has been some progress since 2008. Applicants who achieve higher than predicted grades are now able to reconsider their applications and apply elsewhere. The problem is that the new applications are made too late to make any difference. Selective universities have so many qualified applicants that their quotas are filled long before A-level results are released. Giving applicants the right to redirect their applications does them little good if their preferred university has no places left to allocate.

PQA rose from the dead in December 2010 when Mary Curnock Cook, head of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, revived the issue, calling PQA "probably the biggest single reform we can do in the qualifications arena". She told the Westminster Education Forum she was "hopeful" about introducing PQA.

It is not clear that Curnock Cook remains as hopeful now as she was in December. In a statement on the Ucas website, she says that an admissions system "based on known qualification outcomes...would be difficult to achieve based on the current admissions process". And (as she explains) PQA will be investigated as part of a "comprehensive admissions process review".

Given the multitude of previous reviews, which have achieved little, it might be time for another seance.

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