Entry without conditions

February 17, 1995

Kenneth Edwards outlines the CVCP's views on reform of the admission system. The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals last week issued its submission to the Department for Education's review of higher education. We made it clear that we see good reason for the recent expansion to continue.

The proportion of young people around the ages of 18 and 19 applying for places of higher education continues to increase. There has been even faster growth in the number of mature people applying and rapid growth in part-time study. This raises questions about the way in which potential students find places at universities and colleges.

There are already many ways to qualify for entry to higher education. Besides the traditional routes of Scottish Highers, A levels, BTEC, International Baccalaureate and Irish Leaving Certificate, ever larger numbers are coming in through access courses or with "advanced standing" from existing careers. In the past year we have seen spectacular growth - which is going to continue - in students offering General National and Scottish National Vocational Qualifications.

The air is thick with proposals for changes in the way education is conducted from the age of 16 onwards, and for the system of qualifications which we award. David Robertson's report, Choosing to Change, commissioned on behalf of the Department of Employment and the Department for Education (through the Higher Education Quality Council), proposes an integrated system of credit accumulation and credit transfer to run from post-GCSE to master's degrees.

Many universities have gone modular, and quite a few have adopted a semester pattern for the academic year. Lord Flowers's report on the structure of the academic year in England and Wales, and the parallel work in Scotland of the Scottish Advisory Group on the Academic Year, proposed changes to pre-university examination dates and to the admissions procedures of the universities and colleges, to allow the possibility for the academic year to begin early in September. Experience for this academic year has shown that information technology, which will be a key issue in the review, has made possible a faster system of "clearing". We may expect electronic communications and knowledge-based systems to offer still further savings in time. There is a particular issue which concerns some in the higher education system and all of the schools. Head teachers across the United Kingdom are unanimous in their view that the system of "conditional offers", while it may work for some candidates, could be improved and perhaps ought to be replaced. We may now consider the longer-term implications of all these trends for applications and admissions. The CVCP has therefore set up a review. Its steering group includes school and college heads, and representation of the GCE boards.

There are observers from the funding bodies for further and for higher education. A wide range of other interested bodies is being consulted. The group will explore ways in which the applications process itself might become more flexible. The group will aim to bring forward proposals at least to retain (and preferably enhance) the degree of personal contact between candidate and institution. These proposals will not threaten freedom of choice, the scope for interviews and visits, nor the chance for admissions staff to give consideration to the "match" of the whole person to the whole institution. The groups which the CVCP review has consulted were unanimous in wanting one thing in particular; namely, that the feasibility of an alternative to conditional offers should be explored. It is not hard to see why they feel as they do. Think of a candidate who does much better than expected at A level or at NVQ and who wonders if it might not after all be possible to do a course in a subject which is in great demand.

Under the conditional offers system, such a candidate may not have applied for that kind of course, and will generally have failed to secure a relevant offer. The options then are either to enter "clearing" or to wait a year to apply again. Not everyone can afford to wait.

The group leading the review has decided to take certain issues separately. One of these will be to try to resolve the question of whether anything can be done to reduce the "conditionality" of the present approach.

In the extreme, this would be a "post-qualifications system", about which there has been much press comment lately. But there may be many staging posts on the way to it. It may not be possible to design a workable system of this kind for the qualifications we now deal with, even when they are fully modular. But it may still be possible to do something to help those who find the present system less helpful than it might be. And of course we all want the processes streamlined, and the flows of information improved.

The aim of the CVCP review is to ensure that the system serves the applicant, and that it is able to respond to the many other changes which will soon impact on the application and admissions processes.

Kenneth Edwards is chairman of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals and vice chancellor of the University of Leicester.

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