As ministers assure A-level candidates that exams will take place in 2021, a survey of recent university applicants suggests most would have preferred to apply after receiving their results.
Two-thirds (66%) of students who entered higher education this year back post-qualifications admissions (PQA), a Youthsight survey suggests. The Sutton Trust commissioned the poll because it argues the current system disadvantages those from working-class backgrounds. According to the Youthsight survey, just 13% of first-year university students think PQA would be less fair than the present system.
The 502 students surveyed by Youthsight applied to university through Ucas in 2019/20. Respondents were polled between 11th and 15 September and are weighted to represent gender, age and school type.
A 2017 Sutton Trust report showed that approximately 1,000 disadvantaged high-achieving students per year have their grades under-predicted. The report also showed that low-attaining advantaged students are statistically more likely to win a place at a higher tariff university than low-attaining disadvantaged students.
The present admission system “disadvantages many talented young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds”, because they “may then not apply to selective universities on the basis that their predicted grades are lower than published entry requirements”, the report argues.
Despite the argument that the system disadvantages working-class students, the poll suggests students from less privileged backgrounds (C2DE) were marginally less likely to support PQA than middle-class students (63% compared to 66%).
The A-level grading fiasco this year has “given us a rare opportunity to look more critically at the status quo”, the Trust said. “The conversation on changes to the country’s university application system has been ongoing for decades, but despite the potential benefits of a move to a post-qualification system, which is the norm in most other countries, the system has remained static. But this year, discussions on how to award grades in the absence of exams has highlighted some of the major failings of the current system, including its dependence on unreliable teacher predicted grades.”
I’ve met so many people on my tours who got very poor A-level grades but have completely flourished at university. So, do you move to a university-based form of assessment, or do you still stick with the existing qualifications? That’s an interesting question, which I think does need answering
– Chris Skidmore, former universities minister
Gavin Williamson came out in favour of an admissions review in 2019, including “whether it would be in students’ interests to apply for their university place after they have their A-level results.” Labour included PQA as a 2019 general election manifesto pledge, although it is unclear if the party continues to support the proposal.
Former universities minister Chris Skidmore told University Business last month that PQA was inevitable. “I think the writing was on the wall when both parties stated they were going to look into it in their manifesto. There is a significant vested interest in maintaining the status quo for Ucas. But this issue mustn’t be treated as a patient of the past.”
Despite his enthusiasm for the system, Mr Skidmore warned such widespread reform to university admissions should “take time to introduce”.
“It would be interesting if under such a system you still use A-levels and BTECs as a standard. They are summative forms of assessment; they’re reflective of what you’ve achieved in the subject up until you’ve taken it and not necessarily your ability awards afterwards, and what you’re going to be achieving at degree level. I’ve met so many people on my tours who got very poor A-level grades but have completely flourished at university. So, do you move to a university-based form of assessment, or do you still stick with the existing qualifications? That’s an interesting question, which I think does need answering.”