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Friday the 13th may not be a good day to announce a post qualification admissions plan

The temperature rose considerably this week with the prospect of ‘post qualification admissions’ (PQA) to our universities taking centre ground. UCAS jumped the gun on its university masters* at Universities UK (UUK) with an announcement on Monday of their position statement ‘UCAS Maps Reforms of Higher Education Admissions’. Two options were suggested for consideration. One that UK students apply to university after their exam results, but this would mean delaying start of term to January of the following year. The other more pragmatic suggestion was that students apply well in advance but do not choose from their offers until later and start in October as usual. With UUK releasing their deliberations today alongside those of the government, it seems something will change soon. Oddly, the Office for Students review, that started in February, is now well hidden in the long grass. As a result, it seems reform may be driven by the universities in collaboration with their own admissions service. TEFS considers that all of this blustering now could hide a process that has the potential for making things worse for those of lesser advantage. It could further entrench the status quo of favouring the advantaged through ‘gaming the system’. Students, and the staff who actually teach them, seem to be outside of the process and extreme caution is urged in taking a path that could prove to be divisive. There may be simpler solutions to addressing the problem of unequal opportunity. 

All of this flurry of activity comes well after the Office for Students launched a similar review as far back as February 2020 with ‘Consultation on the higher education admissions system in England. This was shelved soon afterwards and will gather dust until at least the Autumn of 2021. Meanwhile, the UCAS contribution is the opening salvo in what will be the most comprehensive review by UCAS since 2012. We still await the “Full details on the two models being proposed and how UCAS will collect and review feedback on them will be published in the coming weeks”. 

Today, Universities UK pitched in with a fuller picture of what they as universities wanted and posted the outcome of their ‘Fair Admissions Review’ that was launched last June. Interestingly Clare Marchant, Chief Executive, UCAS is on the UUK advisory group and the interdependence of UUK and UCAS should not be underestimated. They must also have the ear of government. The release of the review was obviously coordinated with the Department of Education since the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, announced his own review plans today with ‘Government plans for post-qualification university admissions’. He makes the same old tiresome mistake of boasting “We should celebrate the fact that we are seeing record numbers of disadvantaged students going to university”. Then says that “the current admissions system is letting down the brightest pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds”. He cannot have it both ways and should also stress that there are record numbers of students from all backgrounds, with better off students faring better. The proportion of those from less advantage backgrounds has barely moved in years and will not reach parity for many more years at the current rate (see TEFS 19th October 2018 ‘OfS progress on widening participation: Reserve your seat now for 2204AD’).

What UUK is saying. 

There is no doubt that many will welcome the main recommendations from UUK and their serious consideration by the government. These include abolition of ‘conditional unconditional’ offers and stricter control on the use of ‘unconditional’ offers. A code of practice to maintain standards is mooted but this might be seen by the government as a way to control or subvert contextual admissions to go alongside “greater transparency, consistency, and standard indicators to support contextual offer-making”. The acceptance of “a proposed switch to post-qualifications admissions (PQA) – where applicants express interest in universities, and offers are made to applicants after they have achieved their qualifications – from 2023 subject to full consultation” might have surprised some. But it looks like it will move in this direction soon. 

The lack of representation from students and staff through their respective unions is a glaring gap in the formulation of the plan. However, at least this is partly covered with an afterthought, “There will be further consultation with stakeholders and students on some of the main recommendations such as the proposed post-qualifications admissions system and on contextual admissions”. There will be an interesting debate to follow and much will hinge on how the government chooses to interpret what has been said. 

Unintended consequences. 

The UUK review is comprehensive and took evidence from a wide range of groups ranging from Universities to schools and colleges. Evidence was also gathered by way of a survey of students themselves through an opinion poll in February. Another one now in the context of the COVID crisis would be illuminating.  Those who applied to university or college between 2015-2019 indicated that “70% of recent applicants think the current process is fair”. This might be a factor to consider more carefully alongside the revelation that “34% of those who labelled the process unfair” gave “unhelpful careers advice” as the main reason. It would seem there is more to fix than simply PQA from the students’ perspective. It must be matched by wider reform of the education and advice given. Perhaps more financial support for disadvantaged families would not go amiss. 

It is well worth considering if a PQA process as envisaged could cause more harm than good for students from less advantaged backgrounds; particularly if this becomes the only intervention. However, in responding to the Government, Lee Elliot Major, Professor of Social Mobility, University of Exeter and former director of the Sutton Trust, observed that, “Applying to university with actual A-level grades is a reform that would enhance social mobility as it would sweep away the barriers, from poor advice to low expectations, that for too long have stymied the prospects of poorer students.” 

He would be expected to conclude this because it was the Sutton Trust under his leadership that highlighted the problem of disadvantaged students being excluded from universities based on offers made because of under-predicted grades (Sutton Trust 2017 ‘Rules of the Game’). 

Revisiting 2004. 

Added on 14th November 2020. The current Labour policy on PQA is that they are in favour of it. Thus, the  government’s position must have wrong footed them to some extent. The Labour policy was confirmed by the Shadow Education Secretary, Kate Green at the ‘Fabian Society annual general meeting 2020’ today in response to a question about PQA. Although she confirmed Labour support for PQA, she admitted that this must be considered in the wider context of educational reform. TEFS adds that the track record of the government on equality means Labour should keep a close eye on what they do and the motivation behind it. 

It is worth noting that the current UUK review revisited another one that was held in 2004 under a Labour administration. Called the Schwartz Review, ‘Fair admissions to higher education: recommendations for good practice’, it was completed in a similar time frame and with a similar modus operandi. Looking again at this, it might be fair to say that little has changed on admissions methods which are now in the context of more students, more unconditional offers and, of course, full fees backed by student loans. What Schwartz had to say about selection and admissions is notable here. 

Firstly, it was concluded that “It is not the task of higher education admissions to compensate for educational or social disadvantage”. A good point. There must be other things that need to be considered first. 

However, Schwartz falls in line with supporting contextual selection arrangements and calls for a means to “allow for more fine-grained, contextual judgements about learners”. The review also concluded that the workload on the admissions process would increase considerably as a result and considerably stress the IT systems. Compressing all of this process into a few weeks post-qualification in the summer would be unrealistic. TEFS view is that it would also mean those with more support and advice would be better prepared to game the system in the short timeframe. Those with less support could be frozen out and excluded. If the government is determined to limit the number of university places, this would have a further significant adverse impact and exacerbate disadvantage.

However, had the Schwartz recommendations been considered properly by government administrations in the intervening period, it might be more likely that PQA would have been shelved by now in favour of other more deep-rooted measures to help less advantaged students. 

Divergence across the UK. 

This is yet another move that would have to gain support from governments in each of the UK jurisdictions. UUK and UCAS are important here as they cover all of the UK and the review reflects this with “The review was mindful of which issues or challenges linked to admissions were of UK-wide relevance and which were not, including with regards to diverging policies across the four UK nations.” The chaos that would emerge if different systems operated could sink UCAS in a way that might suit those advocating breakup of the UK. The warning signs are already there. 

The alternatives might be easier and more productive. 

In response to the UCAS release on Monday, David Kernohan of WONKHE asked a simple question ‘Would PQA help disadvantaged students?’. Kernohan looks again at the data in some detail and rightly concludes what TEFS has also concluded; that is “the question is still open”. He rightly calls for “understanding the wider system of influences to application and acceptance choices via qualitative research”. 

However, it seems the earlier Wyness reports of 2016 and 2017 might have exerted undue influence on decisions made by the government and others now. One was for University and College Union (UCU) in 2016 ‘Predicted grades: accuracy and impact’ and the other for the Sutton Trust itself in 2017, ‘Rules of the Game’. However, this is only part of the story, and embracing the panacea of PQA on the pretext of widening access for the disadvantaged should be viewed with a degree of scepticism. TEFS would also hold out for a proper analysis and assessment of the real consequences. Particularly if the education system remains entrenched and unequal in all other aspects. 

Others are considering the implications of PQA. 

Last year, Mary Curnock-Cook, former CEO of UCAS, admitted she was no longer sympathetic to the idea of PQA with ‘How researching post qualification admissions turned me from advocate to sceptic’. She led UCAS back in 2012 when a PQA system was recommended by the ‘Admissions Process review: Findings and recommendations’. This was a complex and comprehensive review and in its findings there were doubts about implementation and impact that remain to this day. It must be remembered that these recommendations were made in an era of much lower fees and grants for students from lower income backgrounds. They saw information, advice, and guidance (IAG) as playing “a pivotal role in any admissions process by guiding applicants through the system and enabling them to make informed choices”. It seems the “inequalities that exist in access to high- quality, timely and impartial IAG are a key concern for many”. They fully recognised that, in terms of widening participation, “there are many factors outside the scope of the admissions process that contribute to widening participation in higher education”. The idea of contextual admissions was seen as a problem that could be solved by “improved contextual data services and visibility of how contextual data is used”. This will be key to assessing how well students might succeed at university. However, it would mean gathering more information over time from schools and colleges and not simply compressing a decision based upon exam results into a few weeks in the summer. 

The alternatives to PQA might be simpler in concept and more effective in achieving the aim of widening access. Removing unconditional offers made without prior results might step on the 'autonomy toes' of universities, but the practice could simply be banned. If schools and colleges are underestimating predicted grades of less advantaged students, this might be simply tackled at source. Why not change the way these are generated by providing more contextual information about candidates and feed this into a contextualised process of selection? If there was greater targeted academic support for such students, and financial and resource incentives, it might turn out to be an easier way to get to the core of the problem. Of course, if the aim is to cement inequality and advantage into place, then PQA deployed without other reforms might seem to be a good idea. It depends on what is the aim and motive. 

A smokescreen.

David Kernohan of WONKHE hit the nail on the head with “There is hard work to be done on educational inequality, and PQA is not a shortcut”. TEFS would go further and say that we may be dealing with PQA being used as a smokescreen by a government determined to further entrench inequalities in the education system to favour the advantaged. Then, at the same time crowing about their success in bringing in PQA. Quoted in various media outlets this week, Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), said PQA was “not at all straightforward to do in practice….It would introduce new problems while solving old problems”. He has opposed capping of numbers in the past and this could make matters worse alongside a strict PQA system. Both are right and the motivation behind any change should be assessed alongside other measures in promoting equality in education. Combine PQA with capping of student numbers at university and students with fewer advantages will face a steeper climb to succeed. We must not be seduced by PQA as a solution on its own. It may make things worse if manipulated by those with more advantages.

Footnote*. UCAS is a charity that provides a comprehensive admissions service to universities. It is funded by student application fees and university subscriptions as well as income from some commercial activities. It is governed by a board of thirteen trustees led by Professor Koen Lamberts,  Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield. The current board consists of eight members attached to universities and five independent members. It is essentially governed by universities in their interests. There are no students on the governing board.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.


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