The problem with UCAS.

I think it is time we reviewed the usefulness of our university admissions process.  I propose the current system is stressful, inefficient and unnecessary when there is clearly another way. (In fact, no other European country constructs such an overly complicated university admissions process).  I know this is a perennial call to arms and that there are many operational objections as well as some well-founded anxieties about the unintended consequences of change to the system, but I feel the current fudge should not be allowed to go on much longer.

I think the veil has finally slipped and we can all see what a nonsense the current set up is.  This summer of A-level results was like no other I have ever experienced.  Most universities had made very aspirational conditional offers but many seemed to have more flexibility on the day.  Now this is not a particularly new phenomenon, but the scale of the ‘flexibility’ is something I had not come across before (3, 4, 5, 6, 7 grades below the conditional offer).

In addition, we had more unconditional offers than ever before which changed the feel of the year for many in the cohort.  Whilst I recognise it is a universities prerogative to reward exceptional talent, you cannot help but wonder whether the rise in unconditional offers is more about bums on seats.  The cynic in me wonders whether some universities are so desperate to avoid clearing, they are willing to take a risk on students with a solid academic track-record.  This gives them reassurance is a world of uncertainty and despite the risk that they may under-perform. This is a gamble worth taking when the reward is not having to wait until mid-August to know how many places will actually be filled.   In my experience, the students with unconditional offers tend to under perform, so I am not sure the strategy does them any good either.  By all means make the a low offer but one which had no conditions attached at all is a plague on all our houses unless it is for an exceptional situation.

As Laura McInerney says in a recent article, the whole system is built on smoke and mirrors.  The nonsense is that students apply before they take their exams, their applications are considered based on predicted grades.  Predictions are notoriously difficult and often inaccurate.  McInerney reports only one in six students achieve their predicted grades, most teachers play along and over-predict for most students but poorer students are more likely to have an under-prediction.  The consequences of this system built on predictions is the continued lack of diversity in the HE sector.  People from poorer families are less likely to go to a Russell Group university.

The death of AS levels has complicated the process even further as more universities opt for entrance exams or rely on GCSE grades which may not be a good indicator of university potential.

Furthermore, the choosing of university places is often a guessing game with so much uncertainty from the universities, teachers, A-level students and their families.  If you apply for a course one grade above your predictions, will they – won’t they make you an offer?

This year, over 100,000 students were accepted via the nail-bitting process that is clearing.  I wonder how effective clearing is at contributing to social mobility?  Do some students have more support to negotiate their way in whilst others are left to go it alone?  As McInerney states this is currently a phone-call lottery with admissions seemingly dependent on whim and fancy.

I believe the solution is to move towards a post-qualification application system.  We could still have open days and interviews in the year before but without the predictions nonsense and more clarity and transparency in the system.  Let’s reopen this debate and see if we cannot make a better system.