Ucas personal statement reforms ‘fail to level playing field’

Experts say long awaited overhaul is welcome but questions-based approach still leaves some students at more of an advantage

January 25, 2023
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“Overdue” changes to Ucas’ personal statement should be welcomed but much more needs to be done to truly “level the playing field” in UK university admissions, according to experts.

The 4,000 character-long statement that allows applicants to demonstrate their skills and experience outside of their formal grades is likely to be replaced by a series of six structured questions that focus on areas such as the motivation and preparedness for the course and extenuating circumstances.

Ucas – which has launched a consultation on the proposals – has said the change will create a more “supportive framework” compared to the old system, which was widely seen as favouring more affluent applicants.

“It’s great that Ucas has finally agreed that the personal statement needs an overhaul, but it’s a pity a little more thought wasn’t put into the proposed replacement questions,” said Steve Jones, professor of higher education at the University of Manchester, who added that he felt there were too many questions and they overlapped too much.

Harriet Dunbar-Morris, dean of learning and teaching at the University of Portsmouth, agreed that “some of the questions cover the same thing from different angles, namely how prepared applicants are, but from different experiences they have had”.

Overall, she said that introducing questions should help applicants structure their answers, which would be helpful for admissions teams when assessing if an applicant had understood what the university offers and whether they are prepared for it.

However, Dr Dunbar-Morris said, she was still concerned that the changes would merely change the structure, as opposed to levelling the playing field, as “some students are able to get more help to better answer the structured questions in the same way as some students were able to get more help to write the original personal statement”.

A proposed question about preferred learning styles has attracted criticism, given its association with research that sought to split students into four different learning groups. Dr Dunbar-Morris said this had long been a “debunked term” and “learning preferences” would be a better way of reflecting the variety of ways universities teach – and what they can offer a student.

Professor Jones has written that he understands the intention of this question was more to focus on current debates around hybrid learning, contact hours and continuous assessment.

His colleague at Manchester, Paul Smith, a lecturer in education, said such “potential misunderstandings” could cause confusion in admissions teams and it could take several cycles before it is clear how different interpretations of the questions may influence the process.

Another uncertainty, according to Dr Smith, concerned how Ucas may respond to the possibility that more applicants will use artificial intelligence tools such as ChatGPT to prepare their answers.

Professor Jones said this was “another reason to move away from text-based application narratives, because it’s another way to game the system”.

“Now is the perfect time for Ucas to think afresh about what exactly universities should look for in their applicants,” he added.

“The process can’t continue to be about high-value work experiences and cultural capital indicators because we know how unevenly distributed those things are.”

Dr Dunbar-Morris added she would like to see Ucas respond to questions from the sector over whether applicants will ever be able to write a tailored personal statement for each of the institutions and/or courses they apply to.

tom.williams@timeshighereducation.com

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