This is a once-in-a-decade chance to introduce PQA, Ucas head says

Old arguments greet Curnock Cook's appeal for new look at admissions overhaul, Simon Baker writes

November 3, 2011

The issue of whether students should apply to university after taking their A levels rather than before should be "put to bed" for at least a decade if parties fail to agree in the wake of the latest set of proposals.

That is the view of Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, who this week unveiled detailed plans to introduce post-qualification applications (PQA) from 2016.

Under the proposals, which would amount to the biggest shake-up of the system for 50 years, students would sit exams 15 days earlier, in mid-May, and receive results in mid-July before applying.

Ms Curnock Cook said these proposals differ from previous attempts to consider PQA in trying to "minimise" the changes required by universities, which would start their terms in October, and schools.

She said the proposals were also accompanied by "probably the most comprehensive overview of admissions issues" ever undertaken to allow a "proper debate" about the core issue of whether PQA would help students.

Nevertheless, within hours of the proposals being circulated, familiar arguments about the impact of change were being voiced, raising the prospect that the review could go the way of previous attempts to look at PQA and end in stalemate.

Chief among the detractors was the Russell Group of large research-intensive universities. Its director general, Wendy Piatt, said the proposals "might restrict the ability of institutions to make a fair and thorough assessment of applicants" because of a narrower nine-week window for applications.

There was also a strong reaction from one teaching union about the added pressure the change might place on schools. Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, labelled the plans "self-serving" because the "upheaval" would hit schools rather than universities.

Ms Curnock Cook pleaded for all parties to read the report before jumping to conclusions and urged people to drop any preconceived notions of PQA based on previous attempts at reform. "I think Day One reactions are going to be less well informed than perhaps over the coming weeks when we engage more intensively," she said.

However, she still appeared wary that disagreements could scupper the plans, as happened after the Schwartz Review of admissions in 2004, when the government failed to achieve consensus over how to change the system.

"In some ways," Ms Curnock Cook said, "I think it would be a good thing if either there is agreement to implement (PQA) and whatever timescale looks possible or it's put to bed for a decade or more."

The new proposals will benefit from a changed environment since Schwartz, she added, including the government's AAB reforms, which might mean that high-achieving applicants would see a clear advantage in waiting for results.

Ms Curnock Cook also said the previous approach to reform had left "everybody transfixed by how the process would work" rather than considering the benefits of assessing applicants with grades.

But Helen Johnson, deputy director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Birmingham, said that by attempting to minimise change, the Ucas proposals risked placing "unrealistic" burdens on selective institutions to assess applicants in too brief a period.

She said she had no objection to the principle of PQA, but the Ucas plan was "trying to develop what we have got into a model that works for PQA, and I think it would have been better to go much further back to the drawing board".

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