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Archive for the 'Tertiary education' Category

Frozen out – How English Higher Education has become a fragile sector

By Blog Editor, on 2 July 2024

By Richard Murphy and Gill Wyness

Of all the priorities the incoming government may have on 5th July, England’s higher education sector is likely to be low on the list. But this may be short sighted – our once world leading HE system has become increasingly fragile over the last decade, with both students and universities suffering from real financial hardship. This is in stark contrast to 2012 where the controversial tripling of tuition fees (to £9,000 per year) put universities in their strongest financial position in decades, and the income-contingent loan system meant students from any income background could attend university. So what has happened?

Myself and colleagues evaluated the series of reforms which took us from zero tuition fees to the highest average tuition fees in the world by 2012.  (“The end of free college in England”). We evaluated these reforms in terms of: enrolments, equity of access and funding per student. We showed that enrolments had held up in the face of the significant fee increase, and the large participation gap that existed under free tuition marginally decreased, and the funding per head reached a 20 year high. The success of the system (by these measures at least) came down to i) the higher tuition fees injecting more cash into the system and allowing universities to expand, and ii) the well-designed income contingent loans system, which ensured that no student had to pay upfront fees, and had enough money to live on. The reformed system of 2012 protected against key market failures – credit constraints, risk and uncertainty and debt aversion – an economists’ dream.

So where did it all go wrong?

In short, with the governments’ decision not to index-link tuition fees and maintenance loans (along with the removal of maintenance grants). The tuition fee cap has only been allowed to increase once since 2012,  by £250 . Tuition fees are now worth around 20% less than they were in 2012 (Ogden and Waltman, 2023). This is disastrous for universities, which rely on fees as a key component of their income.  Things have been tough for students too – maintenance loans have increased over time, but have not kept up with the UK’s high rate of inflation over the last few years.

In the light of these issues, my co-author Richard Murphy and I decided to revisit today’s system, in terms of our three key measures of success – enrolments, equity of access and university funding.

Enrolments have continued to grow

For our first measure of success is easy to measure – have student numbers continued to grow since 2012? Here, there is good news. As figure 1 shows, enrolments have continued to increase at a steady pace since the 1990s, with a COVID-19 bump in 2020, due to more students receiving their required grades.

Figure 1: Student enrolments: number of full-time equivalent undergraduate students at UK HEIs

Notes: series break in 2000 due to change in sources. Source: 1994-2002, figures compiled by V. Carpentier. 2001-2021, Higher Education Information Database for Institutions (HEIDI)

Equity under threat as the value of maintenance loans decline

But have these increases in enrolment come from all sectors of society? Figure 2 shows the gap in participation between students from high and low SES backgrounds, Since 2005 there has been a slow general closing of the SES gap in enrolments between high and low SES students which has continued post 2012 (though it’s worth pointing out that the POLAR4 measure of SES used here has been criticised in the past – other measures are tricky to access but may show a different story). The exceptions are the 2011 and 2020/21 blips. The former likely caused by fewer SES taking gap years in order to enter under the lower fee scheme, and the latter the COVID-19 bump.

This general reduction in inequality is potentially surprising, given the deterioration in financial conditions experienced by lower income groups in recent years. Figure 3 shows the amount of money students from different income background have to live on while studying during each of the reforms.  Since 2012, there has been little improvement in liquidity. An increase of about £1,000 per year in real terms for the poorest students, between 2012 and 2016 (as well as a gradual increase between 2016-2020), has now been eroded entirely by inflation, so that the maximum maintenance loan is now worth less, in real terms, than it did in 2016.

Figure 2: Higher education enrolment gap, POLAR 4 measure of deprivation

Source: UCAS End of cycle report, 2023


Figure 3: Net liquidity (grants+maintenance loans-upfront fees) by parental income for different fee regimes

Source: Authors’ calculations using data from Student Loans Company, 1991–2024. Figures expressed as amounts per year.

Funding per head hit hard as tuition fees frozen

Before 2012, a significant proportion of university funding came through the government teaching grant, with a smaller proportion from tuition fees. The 2012 reforms were designed in part to shift the burden of payment towards graduates. This was seen as preferable to relying on government to fund the system, which is invariably low-priority in times of austerity (Murphy et al, 2022).

Figure 4 plots university funding per full-time equivalent student, both for ‘domestic’ undergraduate students and all student types –postgraduate, undergraduate, UK, EU and overseas students (who typically pay higher fees).  The funding per head for domestic undergraduates is closely tied with the tuition fee increases.  Real funding per head spiked in 2012 then stabilised. But in recent years, funding per head has declined and now stands at the 2011 level.

By contrast, overall funding from all student types has not suffered the same decline. This reflects universities attempts to protect their balance sheets with income from students whose fees are unregulated – predominantly international students. Analysis from the IFS (Drayton et al, 2023) reports that in the 2021–22 financial year, tuition fees from non-UK students accounted for 42% of higher education course fees and 21% of all income for universities in England. Any reductions in the numbers of international students will translate into lower funding per head of domestic students.

Figure 4: Average funding per full-time equivalent student

Sources: Funding from all sources – statistics for 2000–2002 are taken from Carpentier (2004) and statistics for 2002–2021 taken from Higher Education Information Database for Institutions. These figures are not available for 2015,2016,2017.  FTE enrolments used in the computation contain all student types (full-time, part-time, postgraduate, undergraduate, UK, EU, overseas); funding per head is for all students and comprises teaching grants and tuition fee income (the latter for all student types listed above). Funding from domestic students taken from IFS (2023)– total up-front public resources provided for teaching. This is effectively tuition fees for domestic students (minus any fee discounts) plus teaching grants. Figures expressed as funding per student per year. All figures expressed in constant 2023 pounds sterling.

An increasingly fragile sector

The governments decision to freeze domestic tuition fees – apart from the 2017 increase of £250 – as well as its failure to protect the real-term value of maintenance loans is perhaps not surprising. Tuition fees (and student loans) are perennially unpopular with voters (though less so when they are shown how much fee abolition would cost the taxpayer – as a recent Public First report showed) and no government wishes to risk the wrath of the middle-classes by putting them up during a cost of living crisis.  But freezing university and students’ incomes is a policy decision as much as increasing them is, and it comes at a cost.

So far, the sector seems to have coped. Enrolments have held up, access to HE has continued to gradually improve , and university funding per head is still above 2012 levels.  However, this masks an increasingly worrying picture. Funding for domestic students is in serious decline, meaning that universities are more and more reliant on international students to keep themselves afloat. Whether this is likely to be sustainable for much longer is debatable, as the impact of student visa restrictions is felt. Meanwhile, students themselves are increasingly squeezed by falls in their income from maintenance loans.

So what can be done? The obvious solution would be to immediately reverse the erosion of tuition fees and maintenance loans in real terms (and to index link fees and finance going forward). This would amount to an increase of around £2000 per year in tuition fees for home students (Ogden and Waltmann, 2023) – likely to be extremely politically unpalatable for a new government and its already cash-strapped electorate. The major party manifestos have offered little detail on how they might tackle the crisis. The Conservatives plan to keep the 2022 finance regime in place, the Liberal Democrats propose to hold a review and Labour acknowledge the issues stating ‘The current higher education funding settlement does not work for the taxpayer, universities, staff, or students,’ suggesting a review is on the cards.

But action is urgently needed to prevent universities – especially those with less access to lucrative foreign students – from going under. Given the strength of our university sector, let’s hope the new government acts before it’s too late.

More detail needed on what’s next for education policy

By Blog Editor, on 25 June 2024

Claire Crawford

The manifestos are out and the general election is looming. We at CEPEO, as the name suggests, are particularly interested in education policy and equalising opportunities. So, what did the manifestos actually tell us about potential plans in these areas? We focus here on plans set out by the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties.

While the details differed, there were some agreed areas of importance across the parties: the need to recruit, train and retain high quality teachers; to do more to support children with special educational needs; and to incentivise more adult learning. These issues would probably appear quite high up most lists of pressing issues likely to be facing the Department for Education over the next few years.

There was also an emphasis on support for disadvantaged students. The Conservatives highlighted £3bn of spending via the pupil premium – helpful, of course, but only so high because of the very large proportion of pupils eligible now – 25% as of January 2024. Some of this rise is driven by transitional arrangements for Universal Credit, but I’m sure we could all agree that it would be better for far fewer children to be experiencing low family income, even temporarily.

The Liberal Democrats promised to go further on this front by tripling the early years premium to bring it closer to the amount allocated to school children – and extending the pupil premium it to those aged 16-18 as well – both very welcome ambitions. There were no specific details on this issue in the Labour manifesto, but one of their five missions is to break down barriers to opportunity, so there may be more specific announcements to come if they are the ones in office come 5th July.

There were also some clear omissions though. There was very little detail on what might be done to shore up HE funding. Labour and the Liberal Democrats were clear that ‘something’ should be done, but unclear what that would look like. Certainly no-one was brave enough to say that tuition fees might need to go up substantially. We can probably expect another independent review in the coming months to spell out the unappealing choices. The Lib Dems did commit to reintroducing maintenance grants, though, while the Conservatives re-emphasised their plan to close down “poor quality” degrees, which of course are challenging to identify and may disproportionately affect those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, as we have discussed previously.

In contrast to the strong focus on the importance of high-quality staff for schools, there was also very little in the way of detail on a potential workforce strategy to help deliver the extended early education entitlements to children in working families from 9 months, which both the Conservatives and Labour have committed to delivering. The Conservatives are presumably relying on the market to deliver the places (and staff), incentivised by the higher funding rates they have committed to over the coming years. Labour are planning to re-use freed-up space in primary schools to deliver more places, but have not provided any specific details of their plans for the workforce.

While it is possible that providers will use some of the higher government funding to pay staff more, the market does not provide a strong incentive to invest in high quality staff – or in quality more generally. It is challenging for parents to identify setting quality (beyond Ofsted ratings) and many also weigh other considerations – such as availability and convenience – more highly when choosing a place for their child, suggesting that more will need to be done if we are serious about delivering high quality early education.

There is also a lot more that could be done to distribute this funding more equitably, as I spell out in this companion piece. And, of course, it would have been great to see consideration of some of our more ambitious policy priorities to equalise opportunities, including reforming school admissions, introducing a post-qualification admissions system and greater commitment to funding for further education (although credit to the Liberal Democrats for making an explicit commitment on this).

Of the three, the Liberal Democrat manifesto was the most ambitious in terms of the number and scope of specific policy ideas to equalise opportunities – but it certainly wasn’t radical. We must therefore hope that the next government is going to over-deliver on its manifesto commitments. For, as my colleagues so eloquently put it in a recent blog post, there can be no economic growth without education and skills. Ensuring that the benefits of this growth are distributed equitably starts with the education system. We here at CEPEO therefore hope that bolder action to equalise opportunities in education is just around the corner, whichever party is in power next month.

How do we fund widening participation outreach that works?

By Blog editor, on 8 April 2024

By Dr Paul Martin

Last week the Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Keegan, issued DfE’s annual guidance to the Office for Students (OfS) on strategic priorities grant funding, which includes centralised investments to widen access to higher education. Amongst this year’s announcements was a reduction in funding for the ‘Uni Connect’ programme – which is designed to support students from more disadvantaged backgrounds into higher education – by £10 million per annum.

This most recent reduction is the latest in a series of cuts which has reduced Uni Connect’s budget from £60 million in 2020 to just £20 million today, and represents the continuation of more than 20 years of dithering by governments of various political parties concerning the extent to which they should fund centralised widening participation (WP) outreach programmes. From the AimHigher initiative (which launched in 2004) through to Uni Connect today, governments never seem to have been able to agree on how much money to invest in these programmes or how long to fund them for. As observed in the recent Public First evaluation of Uni Connect, the constant uncertainly surrounding the programme has led to serious challenges when it comes to planning activity and retaining staff.

The lion’s share of outreach spending

These centralised programmes represent only a minority of the money spent on widening participation, though, with the majority spent by individual universities themselves.

From 2012 onwards, there was a considerable increase in the number of WP outreach activities delivered by universities themselves, with universities only able to charge the new maximum tuition fees of £9,000 per year if a proportion of fees above £6,000 were allocated to widening participation activities. Today, the situation is very similar – universities may only charge fees above £6,165 (up to a maximum of £9,250) if they have an ‘Access and Participation Plan’ in place which spells out how they will use their additional fee income to improve equality of opportunity. Figures reported by the OfS show that in 2022-23 England’s 198 HE providers pulled in more than £3.4 billion from fees above the basic level of £6,165 and that 25% of this higher fee income (or £859 million) was spent on ‘access and participation investment’ (including financial support for students). For initiatives that support ‘access’ in particular, an estimated £185 million was spent across the providers.

Good news and bad news

While not great news, therefore, a reduction of £10 million in the Uni Connect budget represents a relatively small reduction in our overall annual spend on WP access initiatives. Of greater concern is that we don’t really know whether we’re getting the most bang for our buck in terms of the way we use this relatively large pot of money to improve equality of opportunity.

For many years we have presided over something of a “good news and bad news” situation concerning access to HE for disadvantaged young people. As pointed out in a new CEPEO briefing note on this issue, the latest DfE widening participation statistics show that the proportion of free school meals (FSM) eligible school pupils progressing to HE continues to increase year after year. This is the good news.

The bad news is that overall, there does not appear to have been any narrowing of the gap in terms of FSM versus non-FSM eligible participation rates in HE. In fact, the percentage point gap in participation most recently reported by the DfE is the widest on record since they first began collecting the data 16 years ago. This is true whether we look at access to HE in general, or access to more selective ‘high-tariff’ universities. The percentage point gap in participation by FSM status might not be the only barometer we are interested in, but the lack of progress on this metric (and only minimal progress on reducing gaps in participation between those from different neighbourhoods) sits somewhat awkwardly alongside over £200 million of annual expenditure on this issue.

The importance of evaluation

We should not necessarily infer from these statistics that WP outreach has been unsuccessful. Whilst the proliferation of WP outreach has not coincided with a narrowing of the FSM participation gap, we should bear in mind the possibility that the FSM gap might be even wider still today were it not for the influence of WP outreach. But the fact that we can’t answer this question adequately is a problem: we still don’t know anywhere near enough about whether this significant investment in outreach has been well spent, or whether it could have been more successfully deployed in other ways. How can we change this?

First, we need to significantly improve our efforts to evaluate WP outreach initiatives effectively. Often, we don’t really know what works, because of the lack of experimental or quasi-experimental design in the implementation of WP programmes. We won’t be able to make significant improvements to the evidence base until this happens.

Second, we need to ensure that WP outreach programmes are targeted effectively and are recruiting the right people to take part. Recent research has evaluated the ‘Realising Opportunities’ outreach programme, which focuses on supporting disadvantaged young people to progress to more selective research-intensive universities. Programme participants were found to be much more likely to progress to these research-intensive universities when compared to predictions made by statistical modelling which took into consideration participants’ prior attainment and personal characteristics. Part of the success of the programme hinged on the fact that most participants would be unlikely to progress to research-intensive interventions in the absence of the intervention, leaving a big margin for improvement.

In contrast, some other programmes may not be so well targeted. For example, recent evaluations by TASO of online and in-person ‘summer school’ outreach activities found that the programmes were unlikely to change participant behaviour given that most participants were already on a pathway to HE even prior to taking part in the interventions. If outreach is to be successful, it has to avoid merely preaching to the converted.

Finally, we can improve the evaluation of WP outreach by making greater use of the rich education administrative data that we are lucky to have access to in England. The Realising Opportunities research used linked National Pupil Database (NPD) and the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) undergraduate record data, which remain underexploited in research in this area. The recent evaluation of Uni Connect mentioned above made use of the ‘HEAT’ (Higher Education Access Tracker) dataset which is a huge administrative record concerning participants in a large number of WP outreach programmes over many years. However, as this dataset was only available on its own, a comparison could only be made between those who had engaged more and less intensively with outreach programmes, with no comparison made with those who had not taken part in outreach at all.

If we can successfully link together datasets such as HEAT with the NPD and HESA records, we will have a more accurate view of the extent to which outreach participation makes a difference when all other observable characteristics of students are equal. If and when we are able to throw LEO earnings data into the mix too, we ought to be able to gauge the extent to which WP outreach programmes fulfil their ultimate purpose of supporting disadvantaged young people through the education system and into well paid careers. At this point we would have the clearest insight yet into which particular programmes offer the best return on investment.

Catch-22: we cannot have growth without a focus on education

By Blog editor, on 8 March 2024

By Professor Lindsey Macmillan and Professor Gill Wyness

We were having a discussion in our CEPEO team meeting yesterday about Spring Budget 2024 and the implications for education policy. As we outlined in our Twitter thread, there’s resounding disappointment across the education sector based on the announcements, with very little offered in terms of investment in education and skills. It’s no real surprise of course, given there is no money. Without any real prospect of economic growth this will be the story for the foreseeable future. And yet, and this is the catch-22 of it all, we cannot have growth without a focus on education and skills. In the words of John Maynard Keynes “We do nothing because we have not the money. But it is precisely because we do not do anything that we have not the money”.

Lip service is often paid to the importance of education and skills for growth, and we hear regularly about investments to support the development of skills in particular sectors – AI or green growth, for example. But while these skills are undoubtedly going to be important for future growth, it is the skills of the many, not the few, that are critical for productivity. And, as we know from a wealth of evidence about the effects of the pandemic, the challenge here is a daunting one. We can see from the most recent assessments at the end of primary school that the proportion of pupils reaching expected standards in reading, writing, and maths are down to 60%, levels not seen since 2016. In addition, inequalities have risen. The disadvantage gap is now higher than any point in the past decade.

As outlined in the Times Education Supplement piece this morning, there was a fully-costed education strategy put in place by Sir Kevan Collins, at the request of the government, in 2021 to help children who had missed school during the pandemic. This was based on the idea of three Ts. Teachers, Tutoring, and Time. Invest in the education workforce, invest in tutoring, and invest in extending the school day. Each one supported by rigorous evidence. And each one intertwined with the other to create complementarities to support education recovery. £15 billion was the ask, equivalent to £1,680 per pupil. This might sound like a lot of money but it was against a backdrop of estimates of the economic cost of learning loss reaching as high as £1.5 trillion, because of a lower-skilled workforce. In the end, only one tenth of this £15bn was offered up by the then Chancellor (and current PM), prompting Sir Kevan Collins’ resignation.

This is one example of the short-termism of government policy relating to growth: the reluctance to spend money now for the sake of future benefit. Those incomprehensibly large numbers of the economic costs of learning loss won’t fully hit now, but will instead permeate for decades to come. This means there is little incentive to spend the required money now; government won’t see the immediate benefits and get direct political gain in this election cycle.

Human Capital or Signalling?

A telling part of Sir Kevan Collins’ interview is that there was some kind of idea that the learning lost during the pandemic “would all just come out in the wash”. That children and young people who missed months of school would just catch up with little intervention required.

But this suggests that children can miraculously learn more in a year than they might otherwise have done with no further investment. That somehow teachers could be more productive after the pandemic than before – despite the myriad other challenges the pandemic created or worsened, not least significantly higher school absences. It also suggests that the government didn’t think that investment in the education system would have led to more learning.

But that goes against one of the fundamental theories of economics – human capital theory. The idea is that education increases the stock of human capital – skills – and higher skills fuel productivity and the economy, so investing in education is one of the most effective ways to drive sustainable economic growth. This is backed up by a wealth of evidence establishing a positive return to individuals and the wider economy from investing in education. Furthermore, education has been shown to have wider social benefits as more educated societies have higher levels of civic participation, better birth outcomes and reduced crime. We outline this in more detail in our briefing note “Does education raise people’s productivity or does it just signal their existing ability?”

There was also a lot of discussion at the time that learning loss didn’t matter anyway – because education is just there to act as a signal to employers about the relative abilities of different individuals, rather than something that directly improves their productivity. In other words, if someone has 3 A*s at A level, this tells an employer that they are a better worker than someone with 3 Bs, and it doesn’t matter how much knowledge or skills the person with 3 A*s actually has. But the evidence around this is much weaker as our briefing note describes.

Wasted talent

Linked to this is the belief that learning loss would be equally felt by all pupils. But again, the evidence (including from our own COSMO study) has shown the opposite. Learning loss is felt much more by pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, and thus failing to invest in catch-up has compounded inequality. This inevitably results in wasted talent, further stifling economic growth, as outlined in our UKRI-funded project exploring the links between diversity, education and productivity. Evidence from the US shows that between 20-40% of economic growth over the last 50 years resulted from a better allocation of talent.

Failing to invest when pupils are young also has knock on effects. Education and skills are like building blocks. It is much easier to build an individuals’ skills if they have an existing foundation of basic skills to build upon. This in turn leads to higher returns on investment, as individuals become more and more skilled.

The catch-22 illusion?

This isn’t the first time education has been side-lined in recent budgets. Even the childcare announcement of 2023 was really about increasing labour force participation, rather than investing in early childhood education.

This short-term outlook is the government catch-22: we need growth to invest, but we can’t invest without growth. We need to break this cycle and understand that human capital is the fundamental underpinning of economic growth.

Universities bank on foreign currency

By Blog editor, on 29 January 2024

by Professor Gill Wyness and Professor Lindsey Macmillan

This weekend, we woke up to the news that reporters from the Sunday Times had discovered that some of the UK’s top universities are allowing international students into degree programmes with lower grades than UK students.

While at first glance, this sounds grossly unfair and very much against CEPEO’s mantra of equalising opportunities, others have pointed out that this isn’t ‘news’: these are ‘foundation year’ programmes that are designed to help students with lower grades get access degrees by taking a year-long course to prepare them for entry.

While the details around this are still a little murky (why does the international agent in the Sunday Times video promise guaranteed entry to second year? And why do these programmes appear to have 100% conversion rates onto degree programmes?), it has brought the perilous state of UK university finances to the forefront.

At the heart of this issue is the UK universities’ reliance on tuition fees from international students to balance the books.

The majority of universities’ teaching resources come from tuition fees, though they also receive some teaching grant from the government. However, the tuition fee cap has been frozen (apart from a small increase of £250) since 2012. This means that in real terms, it has been cut by around a fifth over the last ten years. Recent IFS analysis showed that per-student resources for teaching home students have declined by 16% since 2012.

Against this backdrop, international students are very attractive to universities. Their fees are unregulated, and universities typically set them at much higher levels than those for domestic students, meaning they provide huge amounts of much-needed income, particularly in tough times.

Crowding out or crowding in?

While it has long been the case that universities have used money from international students to subsidise UK students, it is reasonable to be concerned that increasing reliance on international students may result in ‘crowding out’, where talented UK students are denied a place on a course because that place has gone to a more lucrative, foreign student. But there is little evidence of this.

Research by CEPEO affiliate Richard Murphy, alongside Steve Machin, studied this question for the UK system between 1994-2011, a time of rapid internationalisation of the UK HE sector. Their study found no evidence that UK undergraduates were crowded out by international students. They also found evidence that postgraduates (whose numbers – like undergraduates under today’s system – are unrestricted) were ‘crowded in’ by foreign students. In other words, their work showed that foreign students provide much needed subsidies to the UK sector, and that without them, even fewer places would be available to UK students.

The evidence from this year also shows little evidence of crowding out; an interrogation of UCAS data from 2023 reveals that of students (under age 21) applying to all UK universities, 354,450 were from England, 28,010 were from Scotland, 15,560 were from Wales, and 14,650 from Northern Ireland. This compares to 82,760 from non-EU countries, and a further 18,810 from the EU. Thus, students from abroad make up about one fifth of total numbers.

This proportion has remained constant since 2018 – while the share of non-EU students has risen from 11% to 16% over the period, the share of EU students has fallen from 8% to 4%.  Thus, it seems that UK universities are simply replacing EU students (who, as a result of Brexit, have faced higher fees from 2021 and are no longer eligible for fee loans) with non-EU students.

Out of options?

While these numbers may provide some reassurance on the issue of UK students being frozen out of the sector, there is no doubt that more funding for domestic students is urgently needed – particularly given demand from UK students is likely to increase even further in the next few years due to increasing participation and the population surge currently working its way through the secondary education system.

Figure 1: Pupil numbers in education


Source: Figure 3.1b) from IFS Annual report on education spending

However, this is politically and economically very tricky. Raising the tuition fee cap would be deeply unpopular with the electorate, given the cost-of-living crisis. A recent report by Public First found that a sizeable portion of the population still support the idea of fee abolition, although this declines when the economics of paying for this are explained in more detail. But the vast majority of respondents were opposed to the idea of increasing tuition fees.

Figure 2: Polling on support for changes to tuition fees

Source: Public First report on Public Attitudes to tuition fees

The alternative – injecting cash into the sector through raising the government teaching grant – would be extremely expensive, so is also unlikely to fly at a time of significant fiscal constraints.

In short, there are very few options available to the government, meaning reliance on overseas students is set to continue for the foreseeable future.

The Class of 2023: (some of) the kids are alright

By Blog editor, on 17 August 2023

By Gill Wyness, Lindsey Macmillan, and Jake Anders

Today marks the first ‘true’ A level and Vocational and Technical Qualifications (VTQs) exam results since the more innocent days of 2019. Although pupils sat exams in 2022, their results were adjusted by Ofqual’s “glide path” which aimed to move results gradually back to pre-pandemic exam grading following the grade inflation of 2020 and 2021. So, a comparison of todays’ results versus 2019 should provide information about the extent of learning loss experienced during the pandemic. And the results present a bleak picture for inequality in England.

Back to the future?

Overall, the proportion of pupils awarded a C or above at A level is more or less back to 2019 levels. This is perhaps grounds for optimism; these students have had a very different learning experience compared to their peers in 2019. They experienced a global pandemic, and severe disruption to their schooling in critical years – as Figure 1 shows. In addition, this cohort did not sit GCSE exams, so lack that crucial experience of performing under pressure that previous cohorts have had.

Figure 1: Timeline of the Class of 2023

However, there is much less cause for optimism when we look at inequalities in the results. At the moment, these are only available across school types, and regions.

Mind the gap

Looking first at inequalities by school type, the gap between academies and independent schools has widened since 2019. The proportion awarded a C or above is down slightly in academies (75.4% in 2023 versus 75.7% in 2019) whilst it is up in independent schools (89% versus 88%). This represents a 1.3 percentage point increase in the state-independent gap, which now stands at 13.6 percentage points. For the top grades (A and above), the independent-state gap has widened slightly more, to 1.4 percentage points.

We already know that students from these different school types had very different schooling and learning experiences during the pandemic. Figure 2, from CEPEO’s COSMO Study, highlights the disparity in learning provision experienced by students from different school types during the pandemic. The disparities in A level performance that we see today are yet more confirmation that these students did not experience the disruption of the pandemic equally.

Figure 2: Provision of live online lessons, by school characteristics, lockdown 1 and 3

There are also notable inequalities across region. In particular, (and as was the case last year), London and the South East continue to pull away from all other regions with the largest increase in the proportion achieving A/A* since 2019, and some of the smallest declines relative to last year’s cohort. Meanwhile, the North East and Yorkshire and Humber are the only regions with a lower proportion achieving A/A* compared to 2019.

Competitor advantage

As discussed, it is harder to make comparisons between today’s results and last years, because 2022 results were adjusted by Ofqual’s glide path. However, for pupils receiving their results today, the 2022 cohort are their closest competitors in terms of higher education (gap year students) and more crucially the labour market, so for them, the comparison really matters.

Overall, results are down from 2022; this isn’t surprising and is part of the glide-path strategy. However, inequalities here are concerning; for C or above, the academy-private gap is up 3.8 ppts compared to 2022.

Among the highest attainers (A/A*), the story is more nuanced. Compared to last year’s cohort the state-private gap has narrowed (1ppt). Remember private schools had far more grade inflation at the top of the distribution when exams were switched to Teacher Assessed Grades in 2021, as figure 3 clearly shows. That they have failed to maintain this stark advantage among top grades suggests some of the record grades awarded over the pandemic were likely down to teacher ‘optimism’. But as mentioned above, the gap among high attainers is up since 2019, therefore also reflecting the better quality of learning experienced by private school students during the lockdowns.

Figure 3: Teacher ‘optimism’ across school types

Subjective scrutiny

Comparing subjects that are more or less objective to assess can also tell us something about how meaningful the results of 2020 and 2021 might be. For example, if we compare results for maths – arguably an easier subject for teachers to grade in their assessments – with drama, we see just how problematic the teacher predicted/assessed grades of 2020 and 2021 were.


Figure 4: Grades by maths and drama

The forgotten 378,000

Of course today isn’t just about A levels – a sizeable proportion of the Class of 2023 – over 378,000 students – took Level 3 vocational and technical qualifications. There is far less data available on these qualifications to provide any real depth of analysis – an issue in itself.

Following a similar pattern to A levels, higher attainment grades for level 3 qualifications are: – up relative to 2019 (at distinction or above), and down relative to 2022 (at merit or above)

Many have pointed out the worrying dropout rates of those taking T levels (the new, technical-level qualification which were launched in 2020) – although it’s important to note that these currently make up only a tiny fraction of vocational and technical qualifications. Of those who did complete, 90% passed with girls outperforming boys at higher levels.

Inequalities persist

In summary then, today’s results present a mixed picture for young people in England. On the one hand, results are back to the pre-Covid heyday, but inequalities are wider, and this again emphasises the inequalities in experiences during the pandemic. These will likely persist well into the labour market – a feature that our COSMO study will track well into the future. Look out for more bleak news to come. This should be a timely reminder to those making education spending decisions in Whitehall for future cohorts.

Social mobility scorecards for universities

By Blog Editor, on 6 June 2023

Oliver Cassagneau-Francis

CEPEO recently launched New Opportunities, our evidence-based manifesto for equalising opportunities. In this blog series, we are highlighting one of our policy priorities each week. This post makes the case for why we should introduce an official “Social Mobility Scorecard” for universities. This would both act as an incentive to those universities who are failing to help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and to recognise others who are a positive force for social mobility.

Graduates earn more money and enjoy better employment prospects than non-graduates, among other benefits. Governments know this, and so a key policy focus has been to encourage more young people, particularly those from less-advantaged backgrounds, to attend university. This is seen as a way to improve social mobility: put disadvantaged young people through a process that the evidence suggests can elevate people to be among the advantaged in society. And it works for some. However, “university” encompasses a wide range of institutions with wildly varying returns. Recent research in the UK has shown that returns can be as high as 35% for the universities with the highest financial rewards, falling to -5% for those with the lowest returns. So, securing high returns is not just about graduating – from where you graduate matters a lot too.

This issue is particularly relevant for the impact of pro-social mobility policies aimed at higher education. Are disadvantaged students attending the universities whose students get the best returns? Recent evidence suggests they’re not – the “best” universities and subjects are doing pretty badly at admitting less-advantaged young people. Students from the most disadvantaged groups were 100 times less likely to attend Oxford or Cambridge (two of the best-performing universities in terms of returns) than students from private schools.

This is where social mobility scorecards could make a difference. To ensure the “best” universities are not cherry-picking advantaged students (who would likely go on to do well anyway), and to reward those universities helping the most disadvantaged students, we need a public record of how universities are doing with regard to social mobility.

These scorecards are inspired by the Social Mobility Foundation’s “Social Mobility Employer Index” which appears to improve both practice and reporting around social mobility of the employers involved. Going a step further and making university scorecards official government releases will increase their traction among policymakers and other stakeholders, and ensure all universities take them seriously. There is evidence that publishing key information does hold educational institutions to account – for example, abolishing school league tables in Wales led to a 3.3 percentage point fall in the percentage of students achieving at least five GCSEs at A*-C (the key published measure) relative to schools in England (where league tables were not abolished).

Following the lead of researchers in the US, researchers at the IFS have already produced a one-off version of these scorecards – showing that the data required is readily available. They calculate a “mobility rate” for each university, which is the share of students from low-SES backgrounds (“access rate”) multiplied by the share of low-SES graduates who are in the top 20% of earners at age 30 (“success rate”). These calculations led to the damning results for Oxbridge reported earlier. However, there are also some positive findings. London-based universities do particularly well on this metric, mainly driven by their high access rates, with Queen Mary, University of London topping the overall ranking of mobility rates at 6.8%. There is no correlation between the average labour market returns at a university (i.e., wages) and mobility rates, highlighting the need for these scorecards in addition to already available metrics.

Officially publishing these mobility rates regularly (alongside other related statistics) would not only hold the most-selective universities to account regarding their poor performance on this metric, but would also highlight the important contribution of many less prestigious universities to society through their role in improving social mobility. This would be an important step towards ensuring that higher education is a positive force for social mobility, and why we’ve chosen to make it one of CEPEO’s policy priorities.

Persistent absenteeism: Who is missing school since the pandemic?

By Blog Editor, on 1 June 2023

Xin Shao, Jake Anders, and Lindsey Macmillan

Since the COVID-19 pandemic there has been a worrying rise in school absence rates, raising concerns about the detrimental impact on young people’s education. This is a key reason that tackling absence is one of CEPEO’s policy priorities — including better understanding its root causes.

The latest attendance data from the Department for Education (DfE) show that absence rates remain significantly higher than before the pandemic. Missing school can have negative impacts on pupils’ outcomes including educational attainment, wellbeing and wider development. However, as yet there is very little robust evidence about which pupils are most likely to be absent from school since the COVID-19 pandemic, and the potential reasons for this absence.

Improving our understanding of the main challenges to school attendance is important so that effective, targeted policies can be developed to tackle this issue. In this blog post, we provide new evidence on some key drivers of school absences, including providing empirical analysis of qualitative reasons raised in the recent inquiry by House of Commons Education Committee into persistent absence. We use data from the COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities study (COSMO), one of the only studies available to look at this issue, by tracking a cohort of young people currently in Year 13 (or equivalent) whose education has been significantly affected by the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The DfE’s definition of a persistent absentee is “a pupil having 46 or more sessions of absence (authorised or unauthorised) during the academic year, around 15% of overall absence.” We define persistent absence here as whether pupils met this criterion during their Year 11 in academic year 2020/21. Schools fully reopened at the start of this academic year following the initial disruption of the pandemic, however in-person schooling was suspended again during the third national lockdown, from 4 January 2021 until 8 March.

A picture of persistent absence in COSMO

About 10% of our sample met the definition of persistent absentees. But this overall rate masks important variation associated with the challenges that young people are facing in their lives. There are important differences in persistent absence by socio-economic background and food poverty, demographics, mental health experiences, and SEND status.

Pupils who are eligible for FSM were 14 percentage points more likely than non-FSM eligible pupils to be persistently absent from school (Figure 1), indicating that pupils from disadvantaged family backgrounds are more likely to have school attendance problems.

Figure 1. Percentage of persistent absentees by FSM eligibility


Notes. Analysis is weighted to account for sampling design and non-response. FSM eligibility over the last 6 years. N = 8,774.

Persistent absenteeism also varies significantly by household food poverty (Figure 2). Pupils living in households who have suffered from hunger were 13 percentage points more likely to persistently absent from school, compared to those living in households that did not experience hunger. Pupils from families who used a food bank were 18 percentage points more likely to be persistent absentees (Figure 3), compared to their peers whose families never used a food bank.

Figure 2. Percentage of persistent absentees by food poverty in households

Notes. Analysis is weighted to account for sampling design and non-response. N = 6,297.


Figure 3. Percentages of persistent absentees by food bank usage

Notes. Analysis is weighted to account for sampling design and non-response. N = 6,220.

Boys are slightly more likely than girls to be persistently absent from school (Figure 4), while differences by ethnicity are somewhat larger, with White pupils more likely than other ethnic groups to be persistent absentees (Figure 5).

Figure 4. Percentage of persistent absentees by gender

Notes. Analysis is weighted to account for sampling design and non-response. N = 8,563.

Figure 5. Percentage of persistent absentees by ethnicity

Notes. Analysis is weighted to account for sampling design and non-response. N= 8,686.

Pupils facing challenges with their mental health were also more likely to be persistently absent from school, compared to those do not have mental health problems (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Percentages of persistent absentees by high psychological distress

Notes. Analysis is weighted to account for sampling design and non-response. High psychological distress defined using a score of 4 or above in the General Health Questionnaire, GHQ-12. N = 8,508.

Even starker is the inequality in persistent absence by pupils’ Special Educational Needs (SEN) status. Students with SEN status were 21 percentage points more likely to be persistently absent from school than those without SEN status (Figure 7).

Figure 7. Percentages of persistent absentees by SEN

Notes. Analysis is weighted to account for sampling design and non-response. SEN = Special Educational Needs. N = 8,772.


Key drivers of persistent absenteeism

While there are stark differences in persistent absenteeism across socio-economic background, mental health experiences and SEN status, these factors are likely to be related to each other, so we could be seeing the same underlying difference in multiple ways. We can therefore consider changes in the probability of persistent absence related to each of these factors, while holding the others fixed, and comparing otherwise similar pupils in terms of family background (parental education and occupation) and prior attainment.

Figure 8 shows the probability of being persistent absentees from each particular group, including those pupils living in a household that used a food bank, having SEN status, and being at elevated risk of psychological distress, relative to those pupils not in each of these groups, but with similar prior attainment, and similarly educated parents, working in similar occupations.

Pupils whose family needed to use foodbanks were over 5 percentage points more likely to be persistently absent, even compared to pupils who had similar family backgrounds and prior attainment, but whose family didn’t need to use foodbanks. Similarly, pupils who had SEN status were over 10 percentage points more likely to be persistently absent than pupils without SEN status but otherwise similar. Pupils facing mental health challenges were over 2 percentage points more likely to be persistently absent than otherwise similar pupils not facing high psychological distress levels. Each of these factors feature heavily in qualitative reports of school absenteeism beyond a breakdown of the social contract between parents and schools, and do not fit the caricature of a school truant who is missing school simply because they don’t feel like turning up.


Figure 8. Change in probability of pupils living in households that used a food bank, pupils with SEN status and pupils with high psychological distress being persistently absent from school, relative to their otherwise similar peers

Notes. Reporting change in probability (marginal effects). N = 4,387; Residual Degrees of Freedom: 2456. The model also includes gender, ethnicity, parental education, parental occupational status, and Key Stage 2 prior attainment; SEN = Special Educational Needs


Moving beyond standard approaches to absenteeism?

Understanding rates of persistent absenteeism, beyond a breakdown of the social contact between parents and schools, is crucial for tackling the issue. Building on existing qualitative evidence, we show substantial differences in experiences associated with financial instability, mental health, and pupils’ SEN status, over and above young people’s demographic and socioeconomic backgrounds. This highlights the potential to tackle a number of these factors directly to alleviate possible reasons for young people not attending school.

In particular, reviewing eligibility for free school meals to help lessen the pressure on families struggling to provide food for everyone in the family, or who are having to organise their lives accessing food banks in a way that may be disruptive to children’s education, appears an important factor. Similarly, ensuring that schools have the funding and capacity to support SEN pupils so that they can attend school is likely to be another way to reduce persistent absenteeism. Finally, these findings again highlight the importance of mental health support for young people, both for its own sake, but also because mental health challenges appear to be negatively affecting young people’s ability to engage with their education.


Aspects of the analysis use administrative data from the Department for Education (DfE)’s National Pupil Database (NPD), where consent was gained for this linkage (73% of young people), with additional weighting carried out to ensure (insofar as is possible) representativeness of analysis using linked administrative data. This work was produced using statistical data from the DfE processed in the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) Secure Research Service (SRS). The use of the DfE statistical data in this work does not imply the endorsement of the DfE or ONS in relation to the interpretation or analysis of the statistical data. This work uses research datasets, which may not exactly reproduce National Statistics aggregates.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this blog post incorrectly referred to this absence as being during this cohort’s Year 12 (academic year 2021/22), rather than their Year 11 (academic year 2020/21).

Why we should introduce a post-qualification applications (PQA) system for post-18 education

By Blog Editor, on 27 April 2023

Gill Wyness

The UK is the only country in the world in which young people make their university applications before they have received their exam results. Instead, pupils apply to university with grades that have been predicted by their teachers.

The problem is predicted grades aren’t always accurate. Analysis of UCAS data has shown that only 16% of applicants achieve the A-level grades they were predicted to achieve, while 75% of students are over-predicted. The same research showed that among equally high attaining students, disadvantaged students receive less generous predictions compared to more advantaged students, highlighting that there are systematic differences in predicted grades across student groups.

Teacher predicted grades have always been controversial, but were thrown into the spotlight during the pandemic, when exams were cancelled, and teacher predictions were pupils’ only means of proving their achievement levels. Of course, there will always be some degree of error in predicting student grades. Research has shown that even when relying on machine learning and advanced statistical techniques, it is only possible to accurately predict the grades of 1 in 4 students from their attainment in previous years and characteristics. This demonstrates that teachers are certainly not to blame for inaccuracies in predicted grades, and also highlights that this difficult and time-consuming task may not be an ideal use of their limited resources. But it also demonstrates that we cannot simply shift the responsibility of the assignment of predicted grades away from them easily.

The fact that there are systematic errors in predicted grades is important. Predicted grades are an integral process of students’ decision-making, being the main piece of evidence they submit to university courses. The fact that high attaining disadvantaged students and state school students receive less generous grades than their more advantaged and independent school counterparts is likely to have consequences for their decisions on which courses to apply to. High attaining disadvantaged students are more likely to ‘undermatch’ and enter courses which are less selective than expected, given their grades, which leads to higher chances of dropping out, receiving a lower class degree, and earning less in the future.

The alternative to teacher predicted grades, used by every other major education system worldwide, is a post-qualification application (PQA) system. This would allow students to make university applications after they have taken their A-level exams and received their results. This system would be more accurate, fairer, and bring the UK in line with the rest of the world in allowing students to make these life changing application decisions based on full information.

It is possible to move towards PQA with minimum disruption to the current education system. Two proposals for achieving this are as follows: the first option would be to condense the final exam period to 4 weeks, and accelerate exam marking to 7-8 weeks. Examinations would take place in early May. Students would return to school afterwards, receiving their results in mid-July, in time for an in-school ‘applications week’. Universities would then have a month to process and make offers at the end of August, and students would have a short time to accept their favoured choice.

A second option would be to shorten the school summer holidays, allowing pupils to sit their exams and receive their grades during term time, and then make their university applications before the school holidays begin. Alternatively, first year university students could start later, giving them more time to process applications. We outline these options in more detail in a previous blog post.

We cannot ignore the flaws of a system that grants and denies young people the opportunity to have full information on their achievement levels before making such important and life-changing decisions. Put simply, if we were starting from scratch, no-one would design a system like this one. Young people deserve the chance to have their applications assessed in light of their actual achievements.

Should we abolish personal statements from the university application process?

By Blog Editor, on 19 April 2023

By Dominic Kelly and Gill Wyness


The personal statement – a key element of the university admissions process – has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years. The main criticism levied at the personal statement concerns fairness:  students from disadvantaged backgrounds may have fewer extra-curricular experiences to highlight in their personal statements and are less likely to have access to high quality advice and guidance when writing their statement.

So, it is welcome news that UCAS recently announced the personal statement is to be reformed, by replacing the free text personal statement into a structured format consisting of six short questions. While these reforms may address some of the fairness issues that many are concerned about, these reforms do not go far enough, and a better solution would be to abolish the personal statement altogether.

What’s the problem with personal statements?

Under the current rules, students applying to university through the UCAS system must submit a personal statement alongside their educational attainment (based on predicted A-level or equivalent grades). The personal statement is a free-text essay, with no specific question, just some loose advice, and a word limit of 4,000 characters. The essay is automatically sent to all the courses an applicant applies to.

There are three key reasons personal statements have been criticised – that they may favour students from more advantaged backgrounds, that they may not be great predictors of ability, and that they may put candidates under unnecessary stress.

Looking first at whether personal statements favour more advantaged students, research examining large samples of personal statements (Jones, 2012, 2013, 2015) revealed clear differences between the statements of independent/selective school applicants and those from non-selective state schools. Independent/selective school pupils had access to many more work experience opportunities to discuss, which were also broader and more diverse. The extreme differences in the extra-curricular activities that those from higher SES backgrounds have has been recently documented by Park et al (2023) whose study of US college applicants found that White, Asian American, higher SES, and private school students listed more extra-curricular activities, reported more top-level leadership roles, and reported more activities reflecting accomplishments and distinctions. Importantly, among those who listed undertaking an activity, Black and low SES students were just as likely to list having played a leadership role in the activity, suggesting that disadvantaged students are just as likely to have leadership qualities, but simply have less resources available to try different activities.

As well as having a wider range of experiences to draw from, the statements of independent school pupils were also longer, and contained fewer spelling errors and punctuation errors. One reason this may be the case is that independent school pupils may receive more guidance and assistance in writing their statements. There is some evidence for this. A study on 16- to 19-year-olds’ efficacy at ‘selling themselves’ in personal statements suggested that this was directly related to differences in resources and training provided by their educational institutions. It is also likely that those from richer backgrounds would be more able to take advantage of private consultancies to help them craft their statements, as they do with personal tutoring, for example.   A 2009 Guardian article reported evidence of independent school pupils receiving more help with personal statements, with a teacher admitting “of course we help our students with their personal statements, their parents are paying £7,000 a term!”

Turning to the usefulness of personal statements as a way to assess candidates, there are a small number of papers examining this issue. For example a small meta-analysis showed that ratings of personal statements were poor predictors of academic achievement, over and above standardised test scores and prior attainment. Arguments have also been made that rather than functioning as a holistic assessment of university suitability or preparedness, they function solely as assessments of writing skills, again casting doubt on their usefulness in identifying good candidates. There is also evidence that a more structured approach to rating personal statements yielded negligible predictive validity for first year grades and dropout rates.

Any doubts about the validity of personal statements are likely to translate into inconsistencies in their use. There is little research examining how personal statements are used by university admissions teams – so we have no real understanding of the extent to which they are trusted by admissions departments and used seriously for decision-making. A greater concern for UCAS than what applicants are writing should be how university admissions staff are assessing their writing, as well as the biases that these staff implicitly or explicitly have regarding low socioeconomic and ethnic minority groups.

Finally, examining the issue of stress, a recent report analysed a large number of personal statements from students from underrepresented backgrounds, as well as conducting surveys and interviews of these students. Applicants from under-represented backgrounds were found to experience a number of challenges when writing their essays, with some spending 30-to-40 hours on their essays, with obvious knock-on effects to their studies and free time. Particular challenges arose from the free-form nature of the essay – such as writing the opening paragraph, developing an effective flow / structure arise, and uncertainty from the lack of an explicit question.

What is UCAS’ Proposed Solution?

UCAS current proposals are to replace this free text personal statement with a structured format consisting of 6 open questions:

  1. Motivation for Course – Why do you want to study these courses?
  2. Preparedness for Course – How has your learning so far helped you to be ready to succeed on these courses?
  3. Preparation through other experiences – What else have you done to help you prepare, and why are these experiences useful?
  4. Extenuating circumstances – Is there anything that the universities and colleges need to know about, to help them put your achievements and experiences so far into context?
  5. Preparedness for study – What have you done to prepare yourself for student life?
  6. Preferred Learning Styles – Which learning and assessment styles best suit you – how do your courses choices match that?

This structured format does have some improvements over the existing personal statement. For example, Jones, Fryer and Westlake (2023) argue that shorter, more guided questions are likely to reduce the stress burden on applicants, and are more transparent, making the essay easier to write. However, there is still likely to be a significant effort involved in writing the statement, given the number of questions.

Simply breaking the personal statement down in this way is unlikely to overcome the many other issues discussed above.

First, the issue of unfairness will remain. Pupils from better-off backgrounds will still have more experiences and activities to draw on in answering the questions. In fact, reducing the remit of short-answer questions to more specific topics could further highlight the lack of extra-curricular opportunities some students have to draw upon, especially since students will then be forced to provide an answer for each topic regardless of whether they have anything they feel important to say. Given a lack of ways of verifying applicants’ information, survey research suggests that there is already an established culture of lying or embellishing on personal statements, which could be exacerbated if applicants feel forced to list opportunities. Issues with spelling and grammar and greater sophistication of language will remain, even in this environment. And independent school pupils can still avail themselves of extra help in answering the questions – in fact a structured format could even make it easier for independent schools to assist their pupils in completing the form. A further issue concerns the rise of ChatGPT software, which seems particularly suited to this new style of short question, now potentially posing an existential threat to the personal statement.

Second, the issue of whether shorter questions are likely to alleviate stress is also questionable. There is not an existing literature on the differences in stress between writing long-form personal statements compared to shorter questions; i.e., there is not a hypothetical study where participants experienced two conditions and levels of stress were compared. Assumptions that shorter questions are less stressful are based on inferences from qualitative data about the current UCAS application. Until such a study is conducted – or the results of the natural experiment that UCAS propose by changing the questions are analysed – this remains an assumption. There is a possibility that issues of opening sentences, structure and word limits will apply to each of the 6 proposed short responses, ultimately multiplying the stress compared to one response.

Finally, as has already been criticised elsewhere, any reference to the concept of ‘learning styles’ (the idea that students have inherent differences that require them to be taught the same concepts in different ways for the instruction to be effective) should be omitted. The concept of learning styles has been debunked but persists as a ‘neuromyth’ which is at best pointless and at worst harmful.

Removing the personal statement altogether

In order to move towards a fairer, more equal applications process, we believe the personal statement should be removed from the university application process altogether. This would not be an unusual situation. Many countries, such as the Republic of Ireland, operate a completely blind process where grades are the only admission criteria.

A potential criticism (as pointed out by Jones, Fryer and Westlake) is that admissions would then be purely based on academic grades (plus an academic reference), meaning inequality could still arise if students’ grades (and teachers’ perception of them) do not accurately reflect their true ability. This is especially likely among more disadvantaged students, who have typically received far less investment in their education than their more advantaged peers. However, retaining the personal statement is unlikely to help with this problem, and may even compound it, if both grades and personal statements favour more advantaged students. A further potential problem is that the personal statement can be used as a means for students to highlight their extenuating circumstances – but this option could be retained without the personal statement.

The removal of the personal statement should be paired with a continuing push towards more contextual admissions. For example, in cases where there are several applicants with similar grades, places should be filled based on a contextual admission strategy (e.g., applicants on Free School Meals, from schools that traditionally send few applicants to university, etc., should be favoured). And beyond simply dealing with ties, students from low SES backgrounds should be given grade discounts. As we outline in a recent blog post, there is a clear economic rationale for the use of contextual admissions, to “level the playing field” at this crucial life stage. Any remaining ties in grades could be filled based on random assignment, which has also been shown to be a fair system of assignment when allocating individuals with the same levels of achievement.

The UK’s university applications system has remained unchanged for many years, and this reform is a unique opportunity to improve the fairness of the system. However, UCAS proposals do not appear to go far enough to achieve this goal.