In­com­ing OfS di­rec­tor backs post-qual­i­fi­ca­tion ad­mis­sions de­bate

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - John.mor­gan@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

Eng­land’s di­rec­tor of fair ac­cess and par­tic­i­pa­tion, now in the Of­fice for Stu­dents, should “re­open the de­bate on post-qual­i­fi­ca­tion ad­mis­sions”, ac­cord­ing to an in­com­ing se­nior leader at the reg­u­la­tor.

Conor Ryan (pic­tured in­set), cur­rently di­rec­tor of re­search and com­mu­ni­ca­tions at the Sut­ton Trust, will join the OfS as di­rec­tor of ex­ter­nal re­la­tions this month. Writ­ing in a Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Pol­icy In­sti­tute re­port on ac­cess pub­lished on 10 May, Mr Ryan ar­gues that dis­ad­van­taged teenagers lose out in an ad­mis­sions sys­tem that re­quires school stu­dents to ap­ply to univer­sity us­ing grades pre­dicted by their teach­ers.

“[The di­rec­tor] should re­open the de­bate on post-qual­i­fi­ca­tion ad­mis­sions: [the Sut­ton Trust’s] Rules of the Game re­search showed bright but poor stu­dents con­sis­tently have their grades un­der­es­ti­mated,” Mr Ryan writes. “With­out AS lev­els [ which were de­cou­pled as in­terim awards from A lev­els last year], the time is ripe for change.”

The last at­tempt to switch to a post-qual­i­fi­ca­tion ad­mis­sions sys­tem, pro­posed by Ucas, was ditched in 2012 af­ter op­po­si­tion from uni­ver­si­ties, who said that they would strug­gle to process ap­pli­ca­tions in a short pe­riod over the sum­mer hol­i­days.

Any move to re­vive the PQA idea by the OfS – en­dowed with a range of far-reach­ing pow­ers by the gov­ern­ment – could prove to be an early flash­point with uni­ver­si­ties.

The Hepi re­port, Reach­ing Parts of So­ci­ety Uni­ver­si­ties Have Missed: A Man­i­festo for the New Di­rec­tor of Fair Ac­cess and Par­tic­i­pa­tion – edited by Paul Clarke of ac­cess charity Bright­side and Diana Beech of Hepi – is aimed at ensuring that widen­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion re­mains a top pri­or­ity, de­spite a shift in the sec­tor’s reg­u­la­tory ar­chi­tec­ture.

Les Eb­don, the for­mer di­rec­tor of fair ac­cess, led a stand-alone body, the Of­fice for Fair Ac­cess. But in the gov­ern­ment’s reg­u­la­tory shake-up, the post – now held by Chris Mill­ward – sits within the OfS, which for­mally be­gan op­er­a­tions on 1 April.

Mr Ryan also says that Mr Mill­ward should ask uni­ver­si­ties to make greater use of con­tex­tual ad­mis­sions. This prac­tice al­lows stu­dents from dis­ad­van­taged back­grounds to en­ter univer­sity cour­ses with lower grades than their peers from more priv­i­leged fam­i­lies.

A sep­a­rate Sut­ton Trust re­port, Ad­mis­sions in Con­text, “gave the lie to the idea that con­tex­tual ad­mis­sions by low­er­ing grades is pa­tro­n­is­ing and dis­crim­i­na­tory”, Mr Ryan writes. “Our anal­y­sis showed that one in five ad­mis­sions of non-dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents were at least two grades be­low the stan­dard cri­te­ria at elite uni­ver­si­ties.

“The new di­rec­tor of fair ac­cess and par­tic­i­pa­tion should ask uni­ver­si­ties to do the same for all dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents with high po­ten­tial and be up­front about what is re­quired to ac­cess a course.”

Some uni­ver­si­ties might be uneasy about the idea of the OfS and the di­rec­tor tak­ing the type of in­ter­ven­tion­ist stance on ad­mis­sions en­vis­aged by Mr Ryan, who adds that Mr Mill­ward’s “task would be helped if main­te­nance grants were re­stored and if fees changed, so the poor­est stu­dents pay noth­ing and the bet­ter-off pay back the most”.

Mr Ryan is among 35 con­trib­u­tors to the Hepi re­port. Another con­trib­u­tor, Anna Vig­noles, pro­fes­sor of ed­u­ca­tion at the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge, writes that “we need to un­der­stand whether a post-A level ap­pli­ca­tion sys­tem would be ad­van­ta­geous for un­der­rep­re­sented groups. For ex­am­ple, dif­fer­ences in pre­dicted grades across state and in­de­pen­dent schools may dis­ad­van­tage the for­mer. Fur­ther, if poorer stu­dents do not aim as high due to a lack of con­fi­dence, mak­ing choices af­ter they re­ceive their grades should im­prove fair ac­cess.”

Pro­fes­sor Vig­noles adds: “The Of­fice for Stu­dents might con­sider a post-A level ad­mis­sions pi­lot to de­ter­mine whether it is fea­si­ble and could pro­duce gains.”

For­tune-telling Conor Ryan says ap­pli­ca­tions made with pre­dicted grades harm dis­ad­van­taged teenagers

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