University applications system 'out of date'

Graduation The university admissions process is based on a system designed for an era with fewer students, says vice-chancellor

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The university entrance system should be switched so students apply after they have their A-level results, says Keele University's vice-chancellor.

Prof Nick Foskett says the current system was designed for an era when many fewer students applied.

Applying before results creates unnecessary uncertainty, he says.

Universities are now "increasingly unclear about how many students they are enrolling just a few weeks before the start of term", he says.

The Ucas admissions service says that students can already apply after their results through the clearing system, which should not be seen as a "last chance saloon".

Hundreds of thousands of young people will receive their exam results this month and will see how this affects their university applications, which have often relied in part upon predicted grades.

Chasing places

But Prof Foskett says that a better system for both students and universities would be to complete the application process only after they knew their exam grades.

He says that students could still visit universities during the previous year and decide where they wanted to apply, but they would be able to make a much more informed, more mature decision, if they could leave the final choice until they knew their grades.

At present, he says young people are "locked into" a system that expects them to make decisions at an early stage.

Start Quote

We're working with a model that is more than 50 years old and was created to accommodate a handful of universities”

End Quote Prof Nick Foskett University of Keele vice-chancellor

Young people change a lot during their sixth form years, he says, and it would be better to allow them to decide at a later stage when they were likely to be clearer about understanding the implications of their choices.

He also says that it is a wasteful system when students and universities spend so much time on so many different applications that are made irrelevant when pupils receive their results.

"We're working with a model that is more than 50 years old and was created to accommodate a handful of universities, but now processes tens of thousands of student applications each year," he says.

Relying on predicted grades creates anxiety for students and uncertainty for universities, he says.

When students are facing annual tuition fees of £9,000, he says students need more time to think about their plans, rather than feeling they have to take a back-up place if they do not match the predicted grades needed for their first choice university.

Clearing system

The admissions system is also facing changes from the government's push for a more market-driven approach.

Last year universities could offer more places to students with A-level grades of AAB or better - but when fewer students than expected achieved these grades it left universities with empty places.

Start Quote

[Clearing] should not be seen as a last chance saloon but a credible application route for all applicants”

End Quote Mary Curnock Cook Ucas chief executive

This year there will be even more flexibility, with universities able to expand for students who achieve ABB grades.

"Until we know how many students have met their ABB requirements and how universities will respond to those who don't meet these grades, it is always going to be impossible to predict the impact on the sector as a whole," says Prof Foskett.

Instead of the current system, based on predicted grades, he says there should be a so-called "post-qualifications application" system (PQA), where students apply after A-levels.

"It would enable students to make more thoughtful decisions about the next step in their education and could help get them on to their chosen path more quickly, particularly at a time while the rise in tuition fees is making A-level retakes and reapplication more attractive to students than settling for insurance offers."

A major government-commissioned study into university admissions, carried out almost a decade ago, concluded that the switching to applications after exam results would be much fairer.

Many university courses do not interview students and the most significant factor can be the grades predicted by schools - but there were warnings that these predictions are often incorrect.

The government backed calls for a change to a post-qualification system, but this was never implemented.

A subsequent proposal for such a system, put forward by the Ucas admissions service, was also not introduced.

Predicted grades

A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: "A Ucas review of admissions processes completed last year considered the barriers and benefits to the introduction of a system of post-qualification admissions.

Start Quote

The current system benefits those with the support, resources and family experience of higher education, to play the complex and confusing processes”

End Quote Rachel Wenstone National Union of Students vice president

"Based on responses from across the higher education sector Ucas recommended not to move to post-qualification admissions, and we accepted their advice."

The chief executive of Ucas, Mary Curnock Cook, said: "We already have a PQA system - it's called 'clearing'. With changes in the dynamics of admissions to higher education, we are already noticing a shift of perception about clearing.

"It should not be seen as a last chance saloon but a credible application route for all applicants and a serious recruiting opportunity for all types of institutions.

"That said, I'm certain that the predicted grade/conditional offer model will also continue to be used and viable for the foreseeable future."

But Rachel Wenstone, vice-president of the National Union of Students, said that students should be able to apply after their exam results and the NUS had been disappointed with the outcome of the Ucas review.

"The current system benefits those with the support, resources and family experience of higher education, to play the complex and confusing processes," she said.

The UCU lecturers' union said that changing the admissions timetable would be difficult.

"In principle, a post-results system would be desirable. However, at present there are too many issues with a post-results system that would make it difficult to implement," said the union's president, Simon Renton.

"We are seeing more universities getting involved with clearing this year and believe the government's attempt to create a bogus market in higher education has created so much instability and uncertainty."

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