Angela Rayner, the Shadow Secretary of State for Education, has recently announced the Labour Party’s intention to overhaul England’s somewhat archaic university admissions system. The changes would serve several purposes that few could disagree with: eliminating the reliance on expected grades, which are often incorrect and are disproportionately inaccurate for students from disadvantaged backgrounds; ending the controversial practice of unconditional (and “conditional unconditional”) offers; and bringing England’s admissions system in line with most other developed countries. It sounds like a no-brainer – so why has it taken more than 50 years to be overhauled? Clare Bromley, a Senior Researcher in Berwick Partners’ Education Practice explains.
Simply moving the entire admissions process to the period following A-Level results day is far easier said than done, and would present a number of significant challenges to universities’ senior leadership teams. Any changes to the calendar would impact academics’ ability to carry out research during the quieter summer period – something that we know would be deeply unpopular from our conversations with senior academics. Popularity aside, it could have a knock-on effect on the quality of the university’s Research Excellence Framework (REF) submission without thoughtful strategic initiatives from senior management.
On the professional services side, Directors of Admissions, Student Recruitment (including International and Marketing), and the Student Experience would have a huge task on their hands, and any senior staff with change management experience would find themselves in huge demand. Clearing departments would, of course, be radically changed. Ironically, given that one of the arguments for post-qualification admissions is making the process fairer for disadvantaged students, Directors of Widening Participation could also risk seeing years of good work undone if a longer summer break results in disadvantaged students becoming disengaged with the application process (which, according to the former UCAS CEO Mary Curnock Cook, was one of the major reasons that nothing came of UCAS’s post-qualification admissions review in 2012 https://wonkhe.com/blogs/how-researching-post-qualification-admissions-turned-me-from-advocate-to-sceptic/).
This summer, the media have reported that students are increasingly eschewing UCAS deadlines and solely applying through clearing, presumably in order to give themselves more time, as well as their actual grades, so that they can make a more informed decision. Others, meanwhile, have been happy to go down the traditional ‘expected grades’ route. Students are increasingly seen as consumers now, and in a buyer’s market, surely enabling the buyer to choose what works best for them is sensible. Given the scale of the challenge post-qualification admission would present – not to mention the cost, and the unintended knock-on consequences – perhaps our imperfect but functional admissions system is the best option that we have.