The Perse School

There has to be a better way – to select students for university

“Act in haste and repent at leisure” was one of my grandmother’s favourite sayings and it was usually followed up by “If in doubt do nought”.

For those students who have either done much better or worse than predicted in their A levels, inactivity is not an option if they want to secure a university place this autumn.  Whilst still coming to terms with the much better / worse than expected exam results and the consequent feelings of elation / despair which may skew objective judgement, students have to plunge into the febrile world of university clearing where universities match unfilled places to unplaced applicants.  The matching is in effect remote speed dating – both universities and students have to make up their minds quickly through email and phone exchanges or the best applicants and the best places will be snapped up by competitors.  It can feel like the university equivalent of the January sales.  This year eighteen year olds, not usually known for early rising, had completed 60,000 clearing course searches by 10.30am on A level results day.  Forty eight hours later 14,000 of them had accepted (for better or worse) university places in clearing.

At one level the statistics are impressive.  The clearing process and individual universities do place a lot of students in a very short period of time.  But at what price?  In the dash for clearing places considered judgements can be compromised and in the rush for a ‘university bargain’, old prejudices can resurface – “ignore Y because it is a former poly”; “forget course x that’s a ‘Mickey Mouse’ degree”.  In addition, the pot-luck of some outcomes is undesirable – should offers and places really be won or lost on the timings of engaged or free ring tones at a manic university admissions office?

Given the time and money invested in higher education, and the formative roles of universities in shaping lives and careers a more considered approach to university entry would surely be preferable?

We have clearing because we have pre-qualification university applications.  Students typically apply to university in the autumn of the upper sixth with predicted rather than actual A level grades.  The problem is that about half of these predicted grades are wrong; a 2013 OCR study found that 38.7% were over predicted and 13% under predicted.  With so much over prediction inevitably some students fail to meet their university offers (based on predicted grades) and have to enter the manic world of clearing.

Over predictions, most prevalent according to OCR in further education colleges, have a number of causes.  Teachers like to think positively of their students and predict grades that are challenging but just within reach.  Some parents and students may pressure schools into awarding higher predicted grades so that they can at least get their preferred university offer to aim for.  In recent years many universities have made their A level grade offers more demanding in part because of exam grade inflation, but also because higher grade offers imply higher quality (university X must be excellent if it requires AAA).  University offers are also being skewed by the UCAS process of ‘adjustment’. Adjustment was designed to help students who did much better than expected.  In cases where students meet and exceed the terms of their ‘firm’ university offer (ie a student achieved AAB for an ABB offer), they can enter adjustment on or immediately after A level results day and see if they can find a ‘better’ university willing to take them.  The opportunity to ‘trade up’ was designed to assist students but universities fearing that students who had met their offers would suddenly disappear late in August to competitors (through adjustment) leaving unfilled places increased their grade offers.  If a university asks for AAA, then it is protecting itself from ‘adjustment’ losses because few students will exceed the AAA offer.

All of this has (i) raised the required grade level for many university offers, (ii) increased the number of students not achieving the levels required by their offers, and (iii) increased pressure on students firstly in the pursuit of very high grade offers and secondly in dealing with clearing if they don’t meet the very high grade offer.

The net result is an inefficient and stressful system that will only become more so with the loss of AS results.  AS grades actually achieved in Year 12 (lower sixth) were a good measure of academic potential which could be read alongside the predicted A level grades.  Now that AS level is being phased out the only public exam that students have sat and that universities can consider in the applications process is GCSE.  Deciding university fates at 18 on exams sat two years earlier at 16 does not seem fair.  Two years is a long time in adolescence, and much can change in the intervening months.  Boys and girls mature at different rates, and whilst girls significantly out perform boys at the A* – A grade at GCSE (24.1% to 16.8%) the performance gap narrows to nearly nothing by 18 where the A level A* – A equivalent figures are 26% girls and 25.7% boys.

If GCSEs become the be all and end all of university selection, then more exam pressure will be bought to bear on 14-16 year olds.  The relentless pursuit of top GCSE grades (the new 9 grade in reformed GCSE will add further pressure to achieve) may compromise both pupil wellbeing and wider learning.

Selecting universities know the problems associated with using GCSE results and A level predictions for making university offers.  This is why some are turning to specifically designed university admissions tests.  Well designed and with one clear purpose these bespoke tests can be a very good selection tool.  The downside is that such tests advantage applicants from schools who have the resources to provide extra bespoke preparation for the admissions tests. (…. there is no such thing as a test that can’t be prepared for).  An additional layer of testing towards the start of the upper sixth also unpicks one of the principles of linear A level reform: the new university tests will encroach on the exam free space for learning created by the removal of AS exams.

The bottom line is that the current pre-qualification approach to university applications is sub optimal and likely to become more so.  The removal of AS levels as a source of information for university entry, was a terminal blow for the pre-qualification route.  The University of Cambridge was right to complain about its demise.

If we want to have a university entry process that works for both applicants and universities then the only way forward is the post qualification route.  The school and university year would need to be tweaked so that students sit exams a little earlier and apply to university post A level results in July.  In one move a lot of unnecessary and unhelpful activity, stress and pressure would be removed from the university entrance system.  Students would have a better idea of what they could apply for, and universities would be clearer on what they were getting.  There would be no need for predicted grades, clearing, adjustment or many of the university admissions tests.  The outcome would be a fairer, more straightforward system with contemporaneous exam results determining university entry.

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