PQA – A Seismic Shift in UK University Admissions?

(unedited version of SCMP's 'Fix Flaws in the System')

 

A mid-November headline in the Daily Telegraph posed this question: 

‘Students could soon be applying for university post- A-levels: what does that mean for your teen?’ 

This was prompted by Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson’s official launch of a consultation on the question of Post Qualification Application (PQA).

 

Martin Campion considers this from the perspectives of student, parent, school, university and international higher education consultant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Six months before any of us had heard of Covid 19, I wrote in this guide about Predicted Grades; their key role in UK Admissions and the torment that they caused annually for students, teachers and parents. Just as it took World War II to shake up society sufficiently to consider the welfare of the needy majority, it seems that an ongoing pandemic (with the associated fiasco over exam grades) has finally had the same effect on a flawed UK University Admissions system.

 

I say “finally”, because I can recall attending my first UCAS Conference at the University of Nottingham, back in 1997, where the key theme was, you guessed it, Post Qualification Application: that is, applicants applying with their final results rather than predicted grades, thereby eliminating doubts in regard to fairness and reliability. Even then, it was felt that technology had advanced to the point at which universities could process admissions in a much shorter time-frame, requiring schools and universities to shift their respective term times only a little. This was more or less, pre-internet: surely the argument is only stronger now!

 

Not everyone is as pro-PQA as I am and are legitimately concerned that the UCAS ‘system’, one that is admired by many worldwide (including myself), is under threat. 

I think that many of the best features of the UCAS system can be retained, within a PQA framework:

Limited choice of 5 university courses.

Retention of the Personal Statement and Reference.

A Clearing Process (with adjustment).

 

David Hawkins, a fellow international H.E. consultant for whom I have enormous respect, wrote in his blog this month, “To those, like me, who deal with lots of international application systems regularly, UCAS is one of the best systems in the world: it seems almost like vandalism to unravel it without actually speaking to those who know about other systems and the flaws they have. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, UCAS looks like a really bad system until you look at all the others around the world and realise it is actually one of the best.”

 

Among the other systems he was referring to are Australia and Ireland, both of which are number-crunching exercises that use final results, supply and demand to award the available places in a course to those students who have applied, listed it as their first choice and have the highest scores, until the places are filled. In such a system, this can ‘roll on’ to fill all places within a limited number of choices, awarding the student a place at their ‘highest eligible course’, creating a cut-off score to guide future applicants. Other evidence such as personal statements or references are rarely, if ever, requested.

 

I share with David his worries about a ‘pure’ PQA system where marks alone are the sole criterion with the consequent focus on ‘exams or nothing’, its effects upon quality education and the added advantage that it gives to the “best-resourced” families and schools. I also share his dismissal of the proposal that, to accommodate a PQA system, the starting date of undergraduate courses would shift to January. Cynic that I am, I suspect that universities are just protecting their summer break and don’t want to admit that they could handle the admissions process comfortably in an admittedly busy July-September period.

 

There are, of course, issues regarding international applicants to the UK, particularly those who don’t generate ‘final’ results at the same time as A levels (currently mid-August) and who may then favour the security of an earlier offer elsewhere. There is also the matter of visa approval within a short time frame. These issues exist, to a degree, already and with IB dominating the international school system here in Hong Kong and both IB and DSE results coming out in July, I don’t see these issues as insurmountable.

 

Talking of Hong Kong, its universities do tend to ask for Predicted Grades, as do some other destinations and this might erase any dreams we may have of doing away with them, altogether. Though I am sure that this will be denied, I suspect that some universities just ask for them because they know that they have been generated anyway, primarily for UK purposes.  As schools frequently do with the USA request for ‘class rank’(with the response, “we do not rank”), schools could respond that they “do not predict’ and, if enough do so, the universities aren’t going to turn away good applicants.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For me PQA isn’t just about ditching predicted grades: I believe that it could bring other significant advantages:

 

  • Better, deeper and more informed H.E. Research by the student.

PQA should facilitate much later application. Students develop in their academics, strengths, preferences and maturity over the course of their final year at school, resulting in more focused and realistic choices. 

 

  • Increased chances to visit campuses on your shortlist, in the course of your final year.

 

  • Assuming the retention of Personal Statements and References, the student’s other achievements can be more fully reflected in their application and the referee can more fully present the student’s academic progress.

‘Leadership’, for instance, is often only emerging by the second year of sixth form or senior school.

 

  • A renewed opportunity for interview as part of the admissions process.

This might sound crazy to some but, of the few who do interview, both Oxford and Cambridge manage to squeeze them into a few days. With final results known, universities would have far fewer interviewees to deal with and these would come at a much more convenient time for the applicants (i.e. post final exams and school graduation).

 

  • Much easier prediction of matriculation numbers for universities with the benefit of final results, thereby speeding up the admissions process.

 

  • It should make it fairer to assess students in ‘context’ from poorer backgrounds and underperforming schools.

 

  • And as the Telegraph puts it, “Teachers would have more time to teach rather than anguish about predictions and transparency.”

 

 

Why not take the best features of other systems, retain what we value in UCAS and always remember that it’s what students make of their undergraduate experience that really matters and not where they secure a place through a game of prediction and guesswork.

 

These are just some thoughts to contribute to the debate on PQA but let’s just pray that the debate doesn’t drag on for another two decades.