A ruckus over UCAS

August 13, 1999

The universities admissions system is in need of an overhaul but the proposed alternative, post-qualification admissions, has been almost universally rejected. Alison Utley reports.

University admissions are being reviewed - again - and with highers out and just under a week to go before A-level results there is still a heated debate about where to go from here.

Discussions have been dragging on for several years amid widespread acknowledgement that the current Universities and Colleges Admissions Service process is in need of an overhaul. So far there has been no conclusion, except in the negative sense that higher education has now deemed post-qualification admissions an official non-starter.

Any fanciful ideas that students might find themselves applying to university or college after receiving A-level results has been firmly rejected by at least 63 universities. Others are equally sceptical despite a strong steer in favour of PQA from the Dearing inquiry in 1997.

A PQA model circulated earlier this year by a vice-chancellor-led steering group to universities, colleges, schools, companies, the Department for Education and Employment, funding bodies and the National Union of Students has been overwhelmingly rejected.

According to the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, all the groups felt that the concept of PQA had some attractions but on closer inspection the change would introduce new sets of problems requiring radical and no doubt expensive solutions.

As discussions progressed at each group, even those who had previously favoured the principle withdrew their support as snags accumulated.

In fact all the groups - totalling 675 representatives - came to the same conclusion. Even a partial PQA system would involve major and unnecessary disruption when the current system, while not perfect, works reasonably well.

The Academic Registrars Admissions Practitioners Group, for instance, noted:

"The problems inherent in a PQA system are the result of the external environment and in particular the timing of the summer A-level and other examinations on the one hand, and the timing of the beginning of the higher education academic year on the other. Until one or other of these constraints can be removed there seems little possibility of a satisfactory PQA model being devised."

That apparent consensus is a sadly wasted opportunity according to Nigel Gates, an admissions tutor for more than ten years and a member of the PQA steering group. He said: "What was proposed was a compromise when we ought to have taken the bull by the horns and got a proper PQA system thought through.

"Some small changes to exam dates would not be unmanageable and none of the other difficulties was insurmountable. But what I would be very unhappy about would be a continuation of the current system, which may have worked well in the past but is now too geared towards A levels to be relevant to today's broader intake."

The now defunct PQA model had allowed for a pre-qualification phase from January through to the end of September enabling applicants, whose exam results would not be available until the summer, to make an initial expression of interest in particular courses. They could then have been interviewed or they could have attended open days. This expression of interest could have been followed by an application when the results were known with forms sent to institutions simultaneously. Other choices would not have been revealed.

But it was not to be. The CVCP, keen to stress that all the effort had not been wasted, said it was aware that although the groups had rejected the proposals, weaknesses inherent in the current system had now been more clearly identified during the consultation process. The current admissions process would therefore be reformed "to accommodate the changing face of education". A familiar refrain.

UCAS chief executive Tony Higgins predicts that the apparent death of PQA may only be an interim demise. The new post-16 qualifications framework, and the AS level in particular, may eventually offer a real opportunity for admission tutors to assess accurately a candidate's ability in advance of full A-level results. "This could be the start of more accurate predictions. I feel really quite optimistic in fact," he said.

The only danger, and it was a real one according to Mr Higgins, was that such a system might encourage some universities to make unconditional "under the table" offers to candidates on the basis of AS results, risking demotivating them for their A-level exams. "In an ideal world we would all like to see a PQA where everyone was acting on up-to-date information but logistically that is just not possible," he added.

Instead UCAS is considering a five-point reform plan outlined recently by CVCP chairman Martin Harris to the Secondary Heads Association.

Professor Harris describes his attitude towards PQA and the "thorny question of the admissions process" as similar to the prime minister's on the question of the euro: "We cannot come to a conclusion on a post- qualifications admissions system until various factors are in place: a later start to the academic year; an early availability of A-level results and a universal adoption of the new AS level offering more certain predictions."

Even when these factors were in place, however, Professor Harris warned that a PQA system would involve a considerably greater workload during the summer months.

His five-point plan is as follows: a later closing date, possibly January 31 rather than December 15; use of AS levels for more accurate predictions; transparency of criteria for entry to higher education to address the "myths and misinformation" regarding entry requirements to some courses; abolition of the conditional insurance choice that accounts for only about 6 per cent of admissions; blind decision-making so that a candidate's other choices would be invisible to institutions.

Some firmer decisions could be announced on November 1 when the CVCP is to hold a conference on the universities' response to the new post-16 curriculum. But for the meantime, the scramble for places during clearing will remain a familiar annual ritual.

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