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Radical Changes Expected to University Admissions Process

Posted on 16 November 2020

The Government announced on 13 November a potential upheaval to the university admissions process such that universities in England could switch to offering degree places on the basis of actual grades rather than predicted ones.

Currently, predicted A-Level grades are front and centre in the university admissions process, but more often than not, the grades predicted are not an accurate representation of the likely outcome. A research report by a UCL Institute of Education academic in 2016 concluded that only 1 in 6 A-level grade predictions were accurate, with three-quarters of actual grades turning out to be lower than teachers had predicted. These findings were echoed in a paper published by academics from UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities earlier this year which raised fresh concerns around the accuracy of predicted grades. Over-predicted grades lead to disappointment amongst A-Level students on results day, who have pinned their hopes on grades that were out of their reach. Many teachers over-predict grades to set targets for students to aim for. However the accuracy of predictions varies dramatically depending on the socio-economic background of the student – students from disadvantaged backgrounds are far more likely to receive under-predicted grades. High-ability disadvantaged students with under-predicted grades are less likely to apply for, or obtain a place at, the top universities, having a direct impact on social mobility. Those students are also less likely to be able to afford to defer the start of their university career in the event that they achieve better grades than anticipated.

One reason that so many students fail to achieve their predicted grades is the application of guidance issued by UCAS, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service which acknowledges that "stretching predicted grades can be motivational for students" and describes predicted grades as "aspirational". Consequently, in 2019, only 24.4% of applicants who achieved AAA were predicted to achieve those grades. 61.7% were predicted to achieve higher and only 13.8% were predicted to achieve lower.

This year, because of examination cancellations due to COVID-19, A Level students were awarded final grades, known as Centre Assessment Grades, by their teachers. This led to numerous university courses being oversubscribed as far more students than usual achieved their offers. However, the same did not ring true for high achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds. An Education Committee report published on 11 July 2020 explained that "high-attaining disadvantaged pupils are more likely to be under predicted compared to those from more affluent backgrounds. Research by the Sutton Trust concluded that around 1,000 high-achieving disadvantaged students have their grades under predicted per year". There were extremely limited grounds for students to appeal Centre Assessment Grades under guidance issued by Ofqual (The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation). Mishcon were instructed, including on a pro bono basis through the Social Mobility Foundation, to assist a number of students who felt let down by the opacity of the process, which could have an impact on their future prospects. The Social Mobility Foundation works with high achieving young people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, tend to be recipients of free school meals and are often the first in their family to go to university.

Joanne Griffiths, Head of Programme Development at the Social Mobility Foundation explained, "The summer exam fiasco had a disproportionately negative impact on our students. The consequences of the delay between grades received and the rewarding of Centre Assessment Grades was devastating. Students who initially missed out on a place at their top-choice university have been asked to defer their place; this has severe financial implications, and many are struggling to secure jobs. The young people who did secure a place were often left with limited and expensive accommodation. Others, who feel their Centre Assessment Grades had been awarded unfairly, have found themselves with few options to appeal the results.

"Many of the young people we work with do not have a support network to help them navigate this situation. They struggled to advocate for themselves when putting forward their cases to universities and found that their schools could not support them. The Social Mobility Foundation worked with Mishcon de Reya to provide guidance and resources for our students as they dealt with this complex and changeable situation. Although we saw many students successfully resolve their issues, others were less fortunate. It is essential that the 2021 exam grading policy learns from the mistakes of 2020 and considers the impact on disadvantaged young people who are already facing an unequal playing field."

If changes are introduced so that course offers are made only on actual grades, this could lead to either the UCAS application window being substantially shortened or the start of the university term being pushed back. Shortening the window between university offers being made and the start of the first university term would put substantial pressure on students to make decisions quickly and find somewhere appropriate to live. Moving the start of the university term could disadvantage students from lower income backgrounds who may find it difficult to secure short term work experience in the interim. It could also impact the number of foreign students coming to study in the UK as our term dates would not be in sync with the rest of the world's top institutions.

Other changes apparently being mooted include reviewing the use of personal statements in the application process, which can also put state school pupils at a disadvantage due to the lack of support available to them when drafting.

A consultation will be launched in the coming months to consider the proposed changes. Any changes are unlikely to be introduced in time for the 2021 application window. Given the continued disruption to education due to COVID-19, this could result in similar issues for the 2021 A Level cohort as seen in 2020. A Level students and their families and educational institutions will be undoubtedly watching the developments closely.

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