The Honest Marketer

Friday, 4 November 2011

An unexpected resurrection on Halloween

It was probably rather fitting that the much anticipated UCAS Admissions Review consultation paper was officially published on All Hallow’s Eve. On a day which traditionally honours the dead, the main thrust of the recommendations appear to simply resurrect the concept of post-qualification application - though UCAS refers to ‘post-results application’.

Post-qualification application is by no means a new concept. It was a key recommendation of the 1997 Dearing Report, which noted that admission to an institution based on actual achievement rather than predicted results “would assist students since they know more about their abilities (and possibly their interests) having received their examination results and having studied for longer.” Mentioned again as part of an enquiry into A-Level grading back in 2002 by educationalist Sir Michael Tomlinson, it went on to rear its head in Professor Steven Schwartz’ Fair Admission to Higher Education report two years later.

I have to admit to being rather surprised at this latest review (though I may have been alone in this) having attended a presentation with my marketing director peers back in June when the clear being message given by UCAS was that post qualification application was favoured by neither universities or applicants.

Just four months ago, we were told that universities were concerned “that a PQA system with compressed timescales would inevitably lead to a more mechanistic approach with greater emphasis being placed on qualifications held rather than future potential - undermining efforts around the use of contextual information and mitigating against applicants who have just fallen short of their grades.” Universities had indicated shorter timescales would “also create difficulties for admissions to the most selective courses where most, if not all, applicants will have excellent exam results” and had “concerns that within a PQA system, applicants who meet the minimum entry requirements for a course might expect to be admitted.”

UCAS informed us that schools and applicants were sceptical that there would be enough time for the whole admissions process to take place between exam results and the start of the HEI term, saying “students would need to make their application as well as arrange university accommodation during this short window. Some may also need to attend university interviews and/or take additional tests.“ In its research, UCAS found only 10% of respondents thought there was too much time between applying to university and actually going, while only 2% think there is too much time for researching choices.

Most ironic of all, UCAS advised then that “the application period could be extended, but neither earlier exam results (and therefore earlier exams) nor later academic term start dates appeal to schools and applicants.” A little odd then, that this is pretty much what they have gone on to recommend. From my perspective, nothing much has changed - other than the increasing pressure being placed on universities because of reduced funding, downward application trends in both home and international markets and a future of staggered fee payments.

In fairness to UCAS, it has embarked on an impossible task. I think we all agree that the current system of application has its problems. It is based on predicted grades which are more likely to be incorrect. A study of the 2009 UCAS admissions process for BIS found only 52% of predicted grades were accurate and when looking at groups of results for individual applicants, fewer that 10% of applicants have three accurate predictions.

We all accept that there are plenty of inefficiencies within the current system: insurance offers don’t really work, processing applications for five choices is an extremely cumbersome and labour intensive process for both UCAS and universities, and Clearing is stressful and confusing. That said, despite all of its problems, for the majority of applicants, it does work; there are plenty of comments from students in response to news stories who say exactly that.

For me, while post-results/qualification application would resolve the issue of grading accuracy, it creates plenty of others. Putting the impact and cost of changing exam and term dates aside, I simply cannot see how universities could develop a workable solution which compresses the bulk of applications (with accompanying interviews, portfolio submissions and auditions) into a three-month period between the end of June and beginning of October.

Post-qualification application is an important issue and one that deserves full consideration. Whatever the outcome of the UCAS review, it is clear that PQA - described by education ministers as “difficult and contentious” back in 2005 - remains so six years on.

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