When are we going to revamp our Higher Education admissions system?

John Beckett's picture
I have been a specialist Higher Education adviser for over 20 years working in various schools, colleges and 6th forms in inner London, having originally trained as a careers adviser. At the very time when it has become more important than ever to advise students accurately with up to date information, higher education admissions IAG has increasingly become a work of near sophistry. Aside from the continuing lack of specialist higher education advisers in schools and colleges – many students make arbitrary, ill informed choices based on their own or others’ whims and historical experiences – the information about what you need to make a successful application is becoming more and more opaque.

How has it come to this? Every applicant should make an application in line with their achieved and likely (given we still have a pre qualifications system) grades so, as an opening gambit, they should check with teachers what they are predicted. Not quite as easy as it sounds – some teachers seem loathe to disclose whilst others bow to pressure and over predict and even in rare cases predict a lower grade than achieved after one year of advanced level study! Next, match predictions with what the university is asking for. Again, sounds perfectly straightforward. Forget the prospectus; check the uni website for the most up to date info. Here we encounter a major problem; many unis are being outright dishonest in what they are saying they need, often vastly inflating the grades they actually require and end up accepting. On asking several unis why they are doing this the most common answer is “marketing asked us to; to make us look more attractive to applicants and their parents”. Unless advised by an experienced adviser, how is the applicant to know this? This is clearly unsatisfactory but has become more prevalent over the past few admissions cycles to the extent that some of us in the advisory world see stated entry requirements as a work of fiction in many instances.

And then we have the dreaded personal statement, something one would believe from the extent of space taken up on the internet and the amounts of angst and obsession with it in schools and sixth forms must be a, if not, the crucial factor in all of this. Again, the evidence suggests otherwise. Much as it is difficult to absolutely quantify, it is clear that many statements go unread and play little or no part in the selection process and it’s really just the eventual grades that matter. Of course this will prompt some admissions selectors to proclaim “But I read them all!” – true (I’ve met some of you!), but you are in a minority. Somehow we all collude with this myth; maybe because we idealistically see the statement as the only way an applicant can express their own individual justification and desire for studying their chosen course.

So, our determined and resourceful applicant does their best to make sensible choices and receives a set of offers, often including ones above their predicted grades and/or different from what the website says. Rarely nowadays has the decision been made by an academic admissions tutor but more likely on an administrative level, often in a central admissions team. How to interpret these offers before narrowing it down over the next few months to a couple of choices? Visiting on an applicant open day will help but it’s not all done and dusted then. And since students applied earlier in this academic year, many goalposts have been moved: unconditional offers for students still studying are becoming more commonplace, financial inducements are being offered at applicant open days. Never have students been more wanted or more confused! And then August arrives, results come out; confirmation and clearing begin, accompanied for a day or two by barely controlled chaos all over the country. August 2013 seemed more bizarre than ever and 2014 promises to be even crazier. Not only did the adjustment system (whereby a student can trade up if their grades are better than predicted) see an increasing number of students ending up at unis they had not originally applied to (is this the Post Qualifications system sneaking in unannounced?) but many unis, including those widely regarded as ‘selective/competitive’, accepted students who had missed their offers by up to 4 or even 5 A level grades. Great for the student but making a mockery of the whole application made the previous autumn.

If the higher education admissions system we have in this country is to survive, we need to have far greater honesty and transparency at all levels, right through from schools through to universities. And it really would make much more sense if this included applicants applying with real grades and universities saying what they really want…please.





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Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 15/05/2014 - 08:19

Thanks for drawing attention to the chaos and deception surrounding university admissions.

There are further problems:

1 If university entrance is mainly decided on grades, this will push more schools into teaching-to-the-test, spoon-feeding answers etc which is the exact opposite of what university lecturers say they want.
2 Judging schools according to the number of pupils attending Russel Group universities and (Truss's latest wheeze) judging them on the number of pupils who take A levels in maths and physics is likely to result in more schools acting in their own interests rather than those of their pupils.
3 The dire state of careers education in schools means that pupils lack the skills to make career choices wisely.

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