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Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO)


We create research to improve the education system and equalise opportunities for all.


A is for Applications

By IOE Editor, on 18 November 2020

By Dr. Gill Wyness, Professor Lindsey Macmillan, Dr. Richard Murphy and Dr. Stuart Campbell

Last week was a big week for university admissions with UCAS leading new calls for reforms to the process on Monday, followed on Friday by support from Universities UK, and the much-welcomed announcement from the Department for Education that plans are underway to move to a Post-Qualification Admissions (PQA) system. Based on our research, in this post, we explain why it is clear that the A in PQA must mean Applications, rather than Admissions.

The central reason for this is that all other options rely on the use of predicted grades, which are both inaccurate and unfair, and so should not be used at any point in this process. Here we put forward a plan for how a Post-Qualification Applications system could be achieved, central to which is reducing the time taken to mark exams. This is a once-in-a-generation chance to re-design a flawed system. We must not waste this chance by recreating a system that continues to embed systematic inequalities by using predicted grades.

An outdated applications calendar

While at first glance the UK’s centralised applications system (University and College Admissions Service – UCAS) might appear modern, we have actually had a centralised applications system since 1961 (then known as UCCA – the University Central Council on Admissions). Since then there have been major advancements in technology, including the move from paper forms with traditional mail and hand processing, to online applications, and the computerisation of exam marking. Yet despite these changes, the calendar of the applications and admissions process has remained stubbornly fixed for the past 60 years. The inertia of this system has been widely accepted, but we believe there are clear opportunities for efficiency gains.

The acceptance of this inertia can be seen in discussions of what a new post-qualifications system might look like. There has been a plethora of ideas, debating the pros and cons of post-qualification decisions, offers, and applications (PQD, PQO, PQA) all of which appear to take the current grading duration as given. In a lot of the discussion that has followed, there is a frequent assumption that in order to move to post-qualification applications, A levels will need to happen much earlier, or universities start much later. This acceptance of the status-quo in terms of timing creates the very real possibility that this opportunity for change will be squandered.

What is the problem with PQO or PQD?

The crucial problem with the alternatives to post-qualification applications is that they still rely on predicted grades. As is very clear from the DfE press release, the significant inaccuracies in predicated grades, and the systematic differences across students, is the key reason for this reform in the first place.

Our recent study showed that only 16% of students receive accurate predictions. While the majority of students are overpredicted, high achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds are typically underpredicted.

In another recent study, we highlight the difficulty of predicting grades, showing that when relying on machine learning and advanced statistical techniques only 1 in 4 students were accurately predicted. This also showed that it was harder to accurately predict grades for high-achieving state school students, relative to their selective grammar school or private school counterparts.

The implications for relying on predicted grades is also clearly explained in the DfE press release:

Disadvantaged students are more likely to ‘under-match’ and enter courses below their ability than their advantaged peers. Under-matched students are then more likely to drop out of university, get a lower-class degree and earn less in employment.”

The phenomenon of undermatch had not been formally documented until recently in the UK. Our paper highlighted for the first time that students from more disadvantaged families systematically attend lower tariff universities than they could do given their A level achievement, relative to their more advantaged counterparts. Predicted grades are a driver of this phenomenon – we found that those disadvantaged students who were underpredicted ended up being overqualified, or unmatched, in terms of both their applications to university and where they ended up going.

Reforms in which students are still making their applications on the basis of predicted grades (as is the case with many of the options being discussed), will not solve this undermatch problem, since students will still be making their applications on the basis of inaccurate predictions. It is therefore crucial that students are allowed to make their applications on the basis of actual, rather than predicted grades.

So how do we deliver PQA (Applications)?

Our proposed approach to PQA is based on utilising the efficiency gains that should be made from our archaic applications system. We argue that given the technological advancements made over the past 60 years, there is no obvious reason why we need to stick to the current timeline. These gains can be made both in terms of how quickly exams are marked, and in terms of how long it takes to process university applications.

Stage 1: Exams and student applications

We suggest virtually no change is needed to the timing of A levels, allowing teachers the time to teach the full curricula. Examinations would still occur in early May. Once these exams are over, A level students could return to school for a range of ‘forward-looking’ activities, including university and careers guidance, work experience, financial literacy training and, in the final week, an ‘applications week’. Keeping students in school for the full school year addresses concerns regarding disadvantaged students not receiving guidance.

In this ‘applications week’, students would receive their grades and apply to their chosen courses, with the support of their school teachers. This would have a neutral impact on teacher workload as they would no longer have to predict grades during the year – their support for applications would shift from earlier the year, and perhaps would no longer have to help with personal statements (see below). Or schools could take on specialists to conduct this advisement.

For this to be achieved, results day would only need to be brought forward by 2-3 weeks. The condensing of the marking period would be achieved through a combination of the previously discussed technological improvements, and increased investment to employ more markers during this intense period to ensure quality is unaffected.

Stage 2: University processes

Universities would receive all applications by the end of July and would have a finite period (a month) to process these and make offers. Given that they will be receiving applications based on final grades, it is possible that the entire application process could be simplified, relying less on ‘soft metrics’ such as personal statements or teacher references which can be affected by bias. Where applicants have identical grades, universities could look at the students’ final grades relative to their schools’ performance, baking in some Widening Participation targets to the process. Those students with most ‘potential’, outperforming their school’s results, would be prioritised among ties. Students would receive their offers at the end of August, only a few weeks after they do in the current system, and accept their favoured choice.

Creating a more agile system

When setting out his rationale for considering post-qualification admissions, the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said he wanted to “remove the unfairness” that some groups currently face due to inaccurate predicted grades.

The only way to remove this unfairness is to remove predicted grades from the application process altogether and create a post-qualification applications system.

Rather than shifting the timing of examinations and university start dates, we argue that this can be achieved by harnessing technological efficiencies which have emerged over the 60 years that the current system has been in place. This is a once-in-a-generation chance to re-design our system to make it fairer for all young people. Allowing them to make critical decisions based on their own merits, rather than inaccurate predictions, is a critical step.

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