Admission of an A-level problem

October 13, 1995

It has been a long hard summer in the recruitment office. The hostile media reports made a complex task even more complicated and so much ill-informed comment has been damaging. How much so will become apparent with the Chancellor's Budget this autumn.

At root, there has been a fundamental attack on the very idea of mass participation in higher education, and calls for a return to an elite system to which only a few have access. It has been a rude awakening for all of us who thought that argument had been won.

The madness of the clearing system has also been in evidence. According to a recent industry survey, Pounds 14 million will have been spent by higher education institutions on advertising - money the sector can ill afford.

At last month's Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals' residential conference in Belfast, the admissions system was very much on the agenda. A background paper reviewed its strengths and weaknesses and gave options. In talks both improvements and models for the future were suggested. Prospectuses could easily be published in more up-dated forms, rather than more than a year in advance. Students could apply in a shorter time-frame, when they are clearer about what they want to study. Teachers could also avoid the difficulties of predicting grades without much information to go on. A recent Universities Central Admissions Service report showed the extent to which teachers' predictions both over and under-estimate students' actual performance.

We could abolish the insurance-place provision, used in practice by 6 per cent of applicants, but which has proved to be so disruptive for institutions. We could also have the opportunity to be more explicit about entry criteria other than the widely-used A-level scores. A more rational system would put less pressure on applicants to make hurried choices in the frenetic clearing period.

Indeed, the very notion of a clearing system was strongly attacked at the meeting. Instead, the argument for a two-phase system was widely welcomed. Phase one would be pre-results, but with a later start further into the second year of A levels, where predictions of grade outcomes might be made on firmer foundations. A second phase would begin when results were known. Students would have the option of waiting for their results before applying. This would facilitate the evolution of a post-results admission system over time.

Such a system is the preferred choice of applicants, parents and teachers, according to UCAS. It is from the vested interests in the current procedures that there is continuing opposition to a post-results system. Everyone would welcome earlier publication of results. The current system was designed around an elite group of applicants with similar qualifications and profiles. Greater participation with different entry routes has strained this.

There is a clear over-supply of places in science and engineering, notwithstanding the country' needs. The funding council's rules for protecting these places are pushing institutions into decisions on entry which have come under scrutiny. That scrutiny would become more intense if Higher Education Statistics Agency data identifies the entry qualifications of students. The data would cast interesting light on the row about one A-level entry on degree courses.

The new universities this summer took the brunt of the media attacks. Will that change with the publication of sector-wide data on both entry to and first destinations from higher education?

Mike Fitzgerald is vice chancellor of Thames Valley University.

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