Uni­ver­si­ties ‘should give of­fers after re­sults day’

The Guardian - - FRONT PAGE - Richard Adams Ed­u­ca­tion ed­i­tor

School leavers should ap­ply to uni­ver­si­ties only after see­ing A-level re­sults, ac­cord­ing to a re­port backed by univer­sity staff.

The Uni­ver­si­ties and Col­lege Union said the move would elim­i­nate the use of unconditional of­fers and the “chaotic” clear­ing process – as well as re­mov­ing a bias in favour of in­de­pen­dent school ap­pli­cants.

The ma­jor re­forms would see school leavers in Eng­land, Wales and North­ern Ire­land ap­ply for cour­ses after see­ing the re­sults of their A-level and BTec ex­ams or other qual­i­fi­ca­tions, rather than ap­ply­ing months be­fore­hand. Stu­dents would start the first year of higher ed­u­ca­tion in Novem­ber.

An­gela Nartey, an UCU pol­icy of­fi­cer and re­port co-au­thor, said: “The cur­rent sys­tem sim­ply isn’t fit for pur­pose. It was de­signed in the 1960s when only about 5% of school leavers went on to study at univer­sity, and there’s an ur­gent need for re­form and greater trans­parency.”

But the UCU faces an up­hill strug­gle be­cause of what one vice-chan­cel­lor said was “in­sti­tu­tional con­ser­vatism” among school and univer­sity lead­ers.

Pre­vi­ous pushes for re­form have been hit by op­po­si­tion from univer­sity lead­ers and the Ucas ad­mis­sions ser­vice. But changes to fund­ing and the re­moval of lim­its on un­der­grad­u­ate re­cruit­ment have shifted ad­mis­sions to­wards the in­ter­est of ap­pli­cants.

UCU’s ef­forts to re­open the dis­cus­sion were backed by Gor­don Mars­den, the shadow higher ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter. “An ur­gent de­bate needs to be had on post-qual­i­fi­ca­tion ad­mis­sions,” he said. “From un­re­li­able pre­dicted grades that can un­der­es­ti­mate the abil­ity of dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents to the sky­rock­et­ing num­ber of unconditional of­fers, the cur­rent sys­tem is in need of a se­ri­ous re­think if it is to give ev­ery stu­dent the chance to suc­ceed.”

Sixth-for­m­ers cur­rently ap­ply for places on cour­ses by Jan­uary, months be­fore their ex­ams. The tim­ing forces ap­pli­cants and uni­ver­si­ties to base their de­ci­sions on teacher pre­dic­tions of likely grades – de­spite ev­i­dence show­ing these to be largely in­ac­cu­rate. By bring­ing for­ward ex­ams for A-lev­els and sim­i­lar qual­i­fi­ca­tions to after Easter and push­ing back the start of term for first-year un­der­grad­u­ates, the UCU au­thors are con­fi­dent that the bulk of ap­pli­ca­tions and ac­cep­tances could take place in Au­gust.

The time be­tween the end of ex­ams and re­sults be­ing pub­lished at the start of Au­gust should be used to pro­vide high-qual­ity ad­vice on ca­reer op­tions and po­ten­tial cour­ses, the UCU says.

“A higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem should be more than a cy­cle. It should be a set of sup­port struc­tures that en­ables stu­dents to make de­ci­sions about their higher ed­u­ca­tion course and in­sti­tu­tion,” the re­port, co-writ­ten by Graeme Ather­ton of the Na­tional Ed­u­ca­tion Op­por­tu­ni­ties Net­work, states.

Bill Ram­mell, vice-chan­cel­lor of the Univer­sity of Bed­ford­shire and a for­mer higher ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter un­der Labour, said he strongly sup­ported post-qual­i­fi­ca­tion ad­mis­sions but that first-year stu­dents start­ing their cour­ses a few weeks after other stu­dents would be un­pop­u­lar.

“We are slowly mov­ing to­wards post-qual­i­fi­ca­tion ad­mis­sions in any case, be­cause stu­dents are now in the driv­ing seats,” said Ram­mell.

Such a shift would also end the clear­ing process, a scram­ble for re­main­ing places among stu­dents with­out a univer­sity of­fer that takes places im­me­di­ately after exam re­sults in mid-Au­gust.

The change would also kill off the in­creas­ing use of unconditional of­fers by some in­sti­tu­tions, which award places to stu­dents re­gard­less of their even­tual grades. Unconditional of­fers have been strongly crit­i­cised by head­teach­ers as caus­ing dis­rup­tion in schools and re­mov­ing in­cen­tives for pupils to per­form to their best abil­ity.

Nartey also said that pre­vi­ous re­search pub­lished by UCU had found that some un­der-rep­re­sented groups in­clud­ing eth­nic mi­nori­ties were dis­ad­van­taged by the ex­ist­ing sys­tem, be­cause their pre­dicted A-lev­els may not have matched their true abil­i­ties.

Uni­ver­si­ties UK said: “One rea­son uni­ver­si­ties de­cided not adopt a new model was be­cause dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents would not have ac­cess to one of their best sources of in­for­ma­tion for ad­vice on univer­sity ap­pli­ca­tions, their school or col­lege, in the time they need to make a de­ci­sion. We recog­nise there are still chal­lenges to ad­dress, in­clud­ing im­prov­ing in­for­ma­tion for stu­dents and ac­cu­racy of pre­dicted grades, and we will be re­view­ing new in­for­ma­tion on this topic from Ucas with in­ter­est when it is pub­lished.”

5% The pro­por­tion of school leavers who went on to univer­sity in the 1960s

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