Incoming OfS director backs post-qualification admissions debate

Conor Ryan says students should apply to university once they know their A-level grades

May 10, 2018
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Fortune-telling: Conor Ryan says applications made with predicted grades harm disadvantaged teenagers

England’s director of fair access and participation, now in the Office for Students, should “reopen the debate on post-qualification admissions”, according to an incoming senior leader at the regulator.

Conor Ryan, currently director of research and communications at the Sutton Trust, will join the OfS as director of external relations this month. Writing in a Higher Education Policy Institute report on access published on 10 May, Mr Ryan argues that disadvantaged teenagers lose out in an admissions system that requires school students to apply to university using grades predicted by their teachers.

“[The director] should reopen the debate on post-qualification admissions: [the Sutton Trust’s] Rules of the Game research showed bright but poor students consistently have their grades underestimated,” Mr Ryan writes. “Without AS levels [which were decoupled as interim awards from A levels last year], the time is ripe for change.”

The last attempt to switch to a post-qualification admissions system, proposed by Ucas, was ditched in 2012 after opposition from universities, who said that they would struggle to process applications in a short period over the summer holidays.

Any move to revive the PQA idea by the OfS – endowed with a range of far-reaching powers by the government – could prove to be an early flashpoint with universities.

The Hepi report, Reaching Parts of Society Universities Have Missed: A Manifesto for the New Director of Fair Access and Participation – edited by Paul Clarke of access charity Brightside and Diana Beech of Hepi – is aimed at ensuring that widening participation remains a top priority, despite a shift in the sector’s regulatory architecture.

Les Ebdon, the former director of fair access, led a stand-alone body, the Office for Fair Access. But in the government’s regulatory shake-up, the post – now held by Chris Millward – sits within the OfS, which formally began operations on 1 April.

Mr Ryan also says that Mr Millward should ask universities to make greater use of contextual admissions. This practice allows students from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter university courses with lower grades than their peers from more privileged families.

A separate Sutton Trust report, Admissions in Context, “gave the lie to the idea that contextual admissions by lowering grades is patronising and discriminatory”, Mr Ryan writes. “Our analysis showed that one in five admissions of non-disadvantaged students were at least two grades below the standard criteria at elite universities.

“The new director of fair access and participation should ask universities to do the same for all disadvantaged students with high potential and be upfront about what is required to access a course.”

Some universities might be uneasy about the idea of the OfS and the director taking the type of interventionist stance on admissions envisaged by Mr Ryan, who adds that Mr Millward’s “task would be helped if maintenance grants were restored and if fees changed, so the poorest students pay nothing and the better-off pay back the most”.

Mr Ryan is among 35 contributors to the Hepi report. Another contributor, Anna Vignoles, professor of education at the University of Cambridge, writes that “we need to understand whether a post-A level application system would be advantageous for under-represented groups. For example, differences in predicted grades across state and independent schools may disadvantage the former. Further, if poorer students do not aim as high due to a lack of confidence, making choices after they receive their grades should improve fair access.”

Professor Vignoles adds: “The Office for Students might consider a post-A level admissions pilot to determine whether it is feasible and could produce gains.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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