Reforming university admissions is necessary to address “injustices” in the system, but post-qualification admissions (PQA) should not be part of the solution, the vice-chancellor of Birmingham University has said.
David Eastwood, the vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham, said there were interrelated problems in university admissions, which stem from unreliable A-levels and predicted grades.
Prof Eastwood said only a comprehensive review of year 13 examinations alongside university admissions would solve the issues identified by campaigners and politicians in the present system.
A government-commissioned consultation on university admissions is underway and closes on 13 May 2021. Announcing the review earlier this year, education secretary Gavin Williamson said the current system “breeds low aspiration and unfairness“.
“There is an alternative,” Prof Eastwood told the Westminster Higher Education Forum on Monday 22 March. “It hinges on separating university admissions processes from assessing students’ work in the sixth form, introducing a standardised assessment test (SAT) for university admissions, and replacing A-levels and other Level 3 qualifications with a diploma system.”
Prof Eastwood – who steps down at the end of this academic year – made his intervention in a virtual conference, which included the vice-chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire, Prof Quintin McKellar, who chaired a Fair Admissions Review for Universities UK, and representatives from the Department for Education (DfE).
A properly constituted SAT identifies potential and does not require students to be lavishly prepared or cram
– Prof David Eastwood
He said a PQA process would restrict the admissions window to just a few weeks or months, precluding universities from expanding contextual offers which, “done well, and sensitively… take a good deal of time”.
“Analyses of multiple intersectional indicators of disadvantage, accompanied by creative ways to close gaps in access experience between the most and least advantaged,” Prof Eastwood listed: “None of this is possible in the short window [post-qualification admissions] would allow”.
Instead, the Birmingham vice-chancellor said a SAT taken in April could provide every university with data on a students’ abilities which, combined with other supporting data and evidence, could underpin a more comprehensive ‘contextual’ offers process.
“A properly constituted SAT identifies potential and does not require students to be lavishly prepared or cram,” he added. He said teachers, academics and policymakers could devise a system that is “relatively immune to “coaching and the coaching industry”.
Year 13s would then, Prof Eastwood said, study towards Level 3 diplomas that underpin a broader education with more creative assessment procedures. “Pupils could still specialise, but the curriculum would be broader, the methods of assessment [more] diverse, and there would be more time for learning and less focus on assessments and preparing for assessments,” he suggested.
Prof Eastwood also said the government is “slowly beginning to appreciate” that A-levels, which have seen soaring grade inflation, will be difficult to recalibrate post-Covid. “I’ll just say the straight terms: I think that the effects of the last two years on A-levels, with the failure of assessments, is to break the system. I think there is an A level reform issue, which is urgent [and] which I think the government is slowly beginning to appreciate.”
“We need not invent the wheel. Much of the groundwork for this was laid down in the Tomlinson report of […] qualifications in 2004. So, what we need is the courage to think differently, and to recognise that our present system is no longer well-adapted, or even fit for purpose. And we need a willingness to partner to build something better.”
On 21 January 2021, the DfE launched a consultation on a switch to post-qualification admissions (PQA).
The present system is “complex, lacks transparency, works against the interests of some students, and encourages undesirable admissions practices,” the government said. Several options are under consideration: post-qualification applications, where students apply after receiving A-level grades in the summer and begin courses the following January, and post-qualification offers, where universities wait until results day to confirm places.
Its consultation highlights weaknesses, including the decreasing accuracy of predicted grades and the fact that it can lead to disadvantaged students making “poor decisions which could lead to poor outcomes”, such as enrolling on courses or at universities below their abilities. “Undesirable admissions practices” such as ‘conditional unconditional’ offers were singled out as damaging to student aspiration and negatively affecting academic performance and drop-out rates.
Ucas and Universities UK (UUK) have both recently acknowledged that the admissions system needs reform, with Ucas announcing plans for two different types of PQA and UUK’s Fair Admissions Review of November 2020 recommending a switch to PQA.