Embrace PQA or have it imposed by Whitehall, UK v-cs warned

Political appetite for post-qualification admissions means universities must work with government to avoid risks to autonomy, conference told

February 24, 2021
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UK universities must take ownership of debate on post-qualification admissions (PQA) to avoid having reforms imposed on them against their will by ministers, a conference heard.

Chris Hale, director of policy at Universities UK (UUK), told a conference held by the organisation that there was in Whitehall an “appetite to look at [admissions] more radically”, but that universities should take the lead on the issue.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson has indicated that he wants to move towards a system where students choose their university place after they get their A-level grades, warning that current arrangements were “letting down the brightest pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds” by relying on predicted grades.

UUK’s own review of admissions concluded that a system of post-qualification offers, where students apply before their exams but do not get their offers until their results are confirmed, was the most “workable, implementable” reform.

But the government’s own consultation, launched last month, says that a more radical option, under which students would not apply until they got their results, as part of an accelerated process lasting just a few weeks, was “feasible”.

Mr Hale said that universities “can’t forget the political context of this…and I think we shouldn’t underestimate how much some of the political trust in the current system has been eroded”.

Post-qualification admissions may not be the best answer to all the issues with the current system but “the sort of solutions to some of those problems which were identified politically have become synonymous with PQA and more radical reform”, he explained.

Emphasising universities’ autonomy on admissions, the sector “has a key role to play in leading these reforms”. “We’ve also got to work with and shape the government policy direction,” he added.

Given the appetite for reform in government, the issue “probably will be forced a little bit more than it has been”, Mr Hale continued. “The government has shown it does have an appetite to intervene where it thinks there are issues, even where there is sensitivity about institutional autonomy, as we’ve recently seen around freedom of speech.

“I think if we weren’t proactive in terms of thinking about how we can make a PQA model work and retain sector ownership over that, then there would be some risks, certainly, of this being something that is done to us.”

Mary Curnock Cook, former chief executive of admissions service Ucas, agreed that “there are some real risks for the sector if it doesn’t come up with proposals that go some way to meeting the concerns that people have”.

But Ms Curnock Cook she said opposed post-qualification admissions for a number of reasons, including fears that pushing students’ admissions decisions into the summer would hurt poorer students, but said it was right for UUK to conduct its own analysis.

She said she feared attempts to circumvent university autonomy over admissions. “I think the politics of this are quite worrying for the sector,” Ms Curnock Cook said.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Reform of university admissions is long overdue with little change since the 1960s. Ideally, universities should be at the forefront of change but with the current Government consultation is underway and universities could find themselves "following instruction" rather than being the independent educational establishment they keep trying to portray. Any reform needs to drive down bias (unconscious or otherwise) despite a decade or so trying to address this, more needs to be done to eradicate this from the admission process. Also, reinstating of university recruitment capping (I can't believe I've said that in type) needs to happen. I once saw the removal of capping as being an advantage for students, especially if universities took it as an opportunity to address diversity within the student population. Unfortunately, once I took off my rose tinted glasses, it isn't what I experienced or heard from chatting with counterparts in some other HE providers. The "more bums on seats = more money" approach seemed to be a driver for some without the investment in academic learning and teaching infrastructure/resources to support students adapt to higher education and achieve success. Yet, there is a question around why UK attrition is so high. PQA is a good starting point. It would be a fairer option to apply after level 3 outcomes have been release putting students on a level playing field, no matter what their gender, ethnicity, school/college, region or postcode. So, I'm uncertain how Ms Curnock Cook sees this model as being a disadvantage to poorer students. But lets not forget about the students who choose a vocational route to university education, they need to be treated as fairly as those applicants with successful A level results. Given the disruption to education/examinations that covid has caused now would be the right time to take decisions on the application/admissions process in readiness for 2022/23 academic year.

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