With no clear winner, let's leave well alone

December 2, 2005

DfES proposals for post-qualification admissions do not make the case for change, says Alasdair Smith

Steven Schwartz's report Fair Admissions to Higher Education launched a debate last year on post-qualification admissions (PQA) with the clear statement: "An admissions system relying on predicted grades, only half of which are accurate, cannot be fair. It... may present barriers to applicants who lack self-confidence."

It is right to try to make the university admissions process more efficient for all 450,000 applicants and fairer for applicants from less advantaged backgrounds. But changes to the system need to be proportionate to the problems being addressed, and they need to make a real contribution, not a nominal gesture, to widening participation.

In fact, most predictions are within one grade of the outcome, and there are many more overpredictions than underpredictions. Statistics from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service suggest that for only a few hundred applicants from lower socioeconomic groups do predictors significantly underestimate results.

The Department for Education and Skills consultation paper Improving the Higher Education Applications Process makes a number of suggestions to improve the situation. For students who outperform their conditional offers, the key proposal is a short post-qualification period in which they could submit a new application while retaining their existing conditional offer. This is a good idea: it is fair, practicable and proportionate.

More problematic are the longer-term options outlined in the DfES paper.

Option A describes how an "almost pure" PQA system would work. In a registration phase, students would express interest in particular courses and would attend open days and interviews. But they would not submit formal applications until after exam results were published in August.

There are a number of problems with this. Much work will have to be packed into a very short time, especially in large universities with many applications per place. Admissions decisions may have to be based in a purely mechanical way on formal qualifications, with little regard to the personal circumstances of applicants. In the current system, universities can build a relationship with applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds and, after the results come out, can give serious consideration to those who have not made the required grades.

And think about courses where interviews are needed. A student who lacks confidence in her ability expects her grades will not be good enough to get into medical school. So she thinks it would be a waste of time to go for interviews. Come August, she finds that her grades are good enough, but she has missed the interview season and there may be no places left.

The practical impossibility of a "pure" one-phase PQA system has generated the two-phase Option A proposal that is an unhappy compromise, retaining much of the difficulty of a one-phase PQA but offering little, if any, improvement over the current system in widening participation.

The consultation paper offers another hybrid - Option B. Under this, all institutions would reserve a proportion of places in August for applicants who had outperformed their predictions. Here the real difficulty befalls the most competitive courses, those that have many more well-qualified applicants than places. Is it fair to turn away many applicants who are confidently and rightly expected to gain three (or more) A grades at A level in order to reserve places for applicants who unexpectedly reach this standard?

It is not enough to say, as Schwartz did, that the present admissions system is not perfect and to back an alternative because it looks better in principle. We need to be confident that an alternative will be better in practice because it addresses convincingly the weaknesses of the current system. The DfES proposals for immediate improvements to the present system meet that criterion and deserve the support of universities, schools and applicants. But no convincing case for Option A or Option B has been made.

Alasdair Smith is vice-chancellor of Sussex University.

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