Select Committee on Education and Employment Fourth Report


Section 3: Admissions

72. The current political emphasis on widening access and enhancing equality of opportunity has focused attention on the admission procedures of universities and colleges. Remarks by the Chancellor of the Exchequer referred to earlier in this report initiated a public debate, which was reflected in evidence presented to us in the course of our consideration of access issues. Several of our witnesses were critical of some current practices. We give some examples of their views below. First, however, we believe there are aspects of 'access' which need to be clarified.

73. One reason for widening access to higher education is to enable all who can benefit to have opportunity to do so. To achieve this objective requires readily accessible information about the qualifications required for entry and help in acquiring these qualifications; the availability of teaching and learning facilities in locations where candidates' circumstances make it possible for them to study; adequate means of student support; appropriate course organisation; the identification and correction of misunderstandings that may otherwise deter eligible candidates from applying; careful assessment of candidates' suitability for the courses they have chosen and, when courses are over­subscribed, fair selection procedures.

74. Another reason for widening access is to achieve a more representative social mix in admissions to high status research­intensive universities, many of whose graduates go on to occupy positions of power and influence in business, industry, the professions and in politics. There is still much to be done to widen access in pursuit of the first of these objectives. But it is the second that has put admission procedures under the spotlight.

75. Widening access to over-subscribed courses requires an equitable and transparent admissions process. At present universities mainly make their admissions decisions for school leavers on the basis of predicted grades at A level, Scottish Highers and other academic qualifications such as the International Baccalaureate, and (what used to be called advanced GNVQs, but are now to be known as) Vocational A levels. Universities also use these qualifications as entry criteria for people wanting to study later in life, but in addition may use National Vocational Qualifications and a range of other indicators of capacity to benefit which are generally grouped together as 'access qualifications'.

76. It is possible to identify several potential weaknesses in the arrangements as they exist at present. First, it is reasonable to ask how accurate are schools' predictions of A level performance and whether an element of unfairness creeps in at this point. Secondly, the improvements in A level performance are now such that this examination does not always allow universities to make the distinctions they need to make in allocating their scarce places based on A level results alone.

77. In every college and university, admission procedures must ascertain if candidates' qualifications are appropriate to the course they wish to follow. Where qualified applicants exceed the number of places available, the institution has also to select those whom it believes are most meritorious, and, however regretfully, to reject the remainder. This is usually done on the basis of the number of A levels or their equivalent taken, the grades achieved or anticipated (this last usually on the basis of a report from those who have taught the applicant previously) and the mix of subjects studied in relation to the content of the proposed course. Account may also be taken of scores on locally devised or bought-in tests, which have been shown to be, or at least on the basis of experience are believed to be, both reliable and valid. In addition, candidates may be interviewed by one or more members of staff, who may use structured interview schedules and observational tests and may or may not have been trained in interview techniques.

78. The outcomes of all these processes may be considered by an admissions committee or panel within a department or faculty, and the relative merits of candidates discussed in detail before a recommendation or decision is made. Some universities have to select in this way for every course they offer, although the ratio of qualified applicants to places can vary a great deal between subjects. In every university there are at least some over­subscribed courses, whilst in other subjects in the same institution it may be a struggle to find adequately qualified candidates to fill all the places on offer. Where a large number of applicants for an over­subscribed course all have top­level qualifications, for example three or more A levels with A grades and 10 or more A* grade passes at GCSE, it can be difficult to distinguish between claims. Students from educational backgrounds associated, in the past, with academic success may find it easier to be accepted by institutions which rely too heavily on practices which have served them well enough in the past.

79. There are marked differences between universities in the social origins and previous educational experience of their undergraduate students. In the country as whole, some 6 per cent of secondary age pupils are educated in fee­charging independent schools. At some popular and research­intensive universities as many as 50 per cent of undergraduates have received their secondary education at such schools.[69] There appears to be a widespread belief that able state school pupils, especially from less advantaged social backgrounds, will either not find a welcome or will not 'fit in' with what is regarded as a somewhat alien social and educational environment at these universities. We fully recognise the efforts by staff within these universities to attract and to admit such pupils.

80. Universities that receive large numbers of applications from independent schools are sensitive to the effects this can have on the social and educational composition of their undergraduate entries. Both individually and in co­operation with bodies such as the Sutton Trust, they are devoting considerable resources of time, money and energy to encourage larger numbers of applications from state schools and from less advantaged communities. Without efforts of this kind to increase the number of applications, it is doubtful whether ever more refined methods of selection within already highly qualified groups will produce substantial gains in accuracy or eradicate concerns about fairness. If application rates are tackled, it will become vital to ensure that mechanisms are available to select fairly from among greater numbers of highly suitable candidates. Where this problem has arisen elsewhere (for example in the selection of medical students in the Netherlands) resort has been had to lotteries. We do not recommend such a move here, but we do recognise there are many issues relating to admissions that need longer and more detailed consideration than has been possible in the course of our work to date.

81. In the belief that a national system of further assessment was desirable the Government has asked the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to develop the Advanced Extension Award (AEA, formerly known as 'world class tests') to distinguish the abilities of the most able students at age 18. The new Awards are targeted at the top 10 per cent of students in each subject and will provide opportunities for all those students to demonstrate their knowledge, understanding and skills to the full. The AEA award is being designed so that it is accessible to all Advanced Level students, irrespective of the institution they study in or the particular syllabus they have followed. The AEA will be available for first examination in 2002.[70] It may be possible that some university departments will wish to incorporate these tests into their admissions processes. The Award is designed so as not to require any additional teaching beyond that already taught within the A level subject curriculum. Despite this, we believe that some schools will commit additional resources to preparing their students for these tests, in the same way that independent schools were better able to prepare their pupils for the old Oxbridge entrance exams which have not been used since 1995 because of this concern.

82. We are concerned that not all state schools and colleges will be able to provide resources to prepare students for the new AEA awards. We recommend their introduction and use should be carefully monitored. These new awards should not reintroduce barriers to university entrance which would be difficult to overcome for students from less well resourced schools.

83. We recommend that steps should be taken to assemble existing findings and to fund new research that would encourage a considered and evidence­based approach to improving admission procedures. The objective of such an evidence based approach should be widening access without threatening the merit basis of admissions and the maintenance and improvement of academic standards.

Mature students

  84. At the moment one third of students entering higher education are over the age of 25. The success of higher education institutions in attracting mature students, who often lack traditional qualifications, could be extended if more institutions offered flexible courses, allowing students to vary their level of participation over the course of their programme. For some students with more complicated financial, family or other responsibilities, knowing they can take a break or decide to do more or fewer courses in line with their changing circumstances over the course of the degree programme would encourage people who might currently feel they cannot commit to a full­time programme. For those who do not wish to embark on a six year part­time programme the possibility of more flexible study than the standard three year degree programme, of interruption without loss of money or good academic standing, would do much to relieve the pressure to complete within three years even if personal circumstances change. It would arguably, therefore, lead to fewer students 'dropping out'. We acknowledge the complexity of the lives of mature students and their particular personal and financial circumstances. We recommend that the DfEE should undertake a full review of modularisation and degrees taking more than three years. Such a review should take account of the resources and infra-structural support that higher education institutions require in order to offer more flexible forms of study.

The timing of admission decisions

  85. At present universities and colleges make offers of places on the basis of information included in UCAS documents, predictions of A level success, and interview. There has been a move to postpone the admission process until after A level results are known. The CVCP working party on university admissions was not able to agree on a post-qualification application (PQA) system which satisfied everybody because of difficulties with the timetables of the present school and university years.[71] The Secondary Heads Association told the Sub-committee that 'Russell Group'[72] universities were more reluctant than others to adopt post-qualification admissions.[73] Mr Neil Hopkins, Principal of Peter Symonds Sixth Form College, questioned the existing timing of university entrance: "university terms do not last 52 weeks of the year; why can they not start a month later?".[74]

86. Professor A.H. Halsey and Dr Gerry McCrum of Oxford University have stated that Oxford colleges will interview all applicants and make offers to a certain proportion of these depending on the number of places available, based on predicted A level grades and the results of Oxford's interview process.[75] They described the final stage of the process, to fill places when fewer candidates reach the grades required than the number of places available, as something of a "black art".[76] Like other universities filling places after the publication of A level results in August, colleges of the University of Oxford take into account factors such as the individual's circumstances in making decisions on whether to accept a candidate who has missed the grades required by the college's offer. We recommend that university and college admissions offices should establish and publish criteria for taking decisions on candidates who have missed their offers which are as clear as possible.

87. Baroness Blackstone agreed that there were many advantages to having a post­qualification application system, although she recognised the difficulties in adopting this system. The Minister told the Sub-committee that it was a matter for the higher education sector to work out in discussion with schools and colleges.[77]

88. An Independent Commission on the Organisation of the School Year, chaired by a former Chairman of the House of Commons Education, Science and Arts Select Committee, Mr Christopher Price, was established by the Local Government Association in December 1999, and published its findings in September 2000.[78] The Commission considered evidence from schools, local education authorities, tourist organisations, the higher education sector and bodies representing teachers and parents. It outlined proposals for a six term year designed around three broad objectives: a reduction in teacher stress; measures to reduce social exclusion, especially in the transition from school to higher education; and a smoother process of learning assessment and transfer.

89. Of most relevance to our inquiry was the Commission's proposal that Term 5, to be taken during April and May, would become an 'assessment term' during which major public examinations would be taken. Such a scheme would facilitate application to universities after the results of A level and Vocational A levels were known. Term 6 in the last year of school would be an 'enrichment term' when young adults on the point of leaving the secondary sector could develop non-academic life skills.

90. School leavers who have more complete information about their own achievements will be able to make more informed choices about whether and where to enter higher education. We expect that a system of post-qualification application would make a substantial contribution to improving access for those who enter higher education by the A level route. It is very disappointing that after many years of discussion and despite the obvious merits of deciding whether to offer a place on a university course on the basis of the applicant's actual rather than predicted results, it has so far been impossible to devise an acceptable system of post-qualification applications. We welcome the proposals from the Independent Commission on the Organisation of the School Year. We strongly support moves toward an academic calendar which allows applications to higher education to be based on students' qualification results (Post Qualification Applications) rather than projections of their performance. The Independent Commission's report is an important contribution to this debate, and should be acted upon with all possible speed.

The UCAS Points tariff

  91. UCAS has developed a new points tariff which will be introduced in 2002. This will enable students' increasingly diverse qualification status—A levels, AS levels, Advanced Extension papers, GNVQs (now called Vocational A levels), BTEC National Certificates and Diplomas and eventually the International Baccalaureate—to be recognized. UCAS' aim is to have every qualification in the curriculum framework awarded a tariff,[79] although Mr Tony Higgins, Chief Executive of UCAS, told the Education Sub-committee that GCSE results would not be included in the tariff. Use of the tariff will enable a points score to be aggregated from different qualifications. There is no ceiling to the number of points that can be accumulated, there will be no risk of double-counting, and AS level scores will be subsumed into an A level score in the same subject.

92. Baroness Blackstone, Minister for Higher Education, acknowledged that universities have become hugely more flexible than they were 10 or 15 years ago in recognising a wider range of qualifications.[80] She was delighted that most universities were going to make use of the new tariff, but did not believe that using or not using the tariff itself would be an impediment to access.[81] She went on to explain:

    "I can certainly envisage a situation in which a university decided that the tariff system, where you tot up points and then reach a total and see how students compare, might not be the one that they would want to make most use of. They might want to look at a whole range of individual qualifications, plus other qualities that students might want to possess to do really well in particular courses that they are offering".[82]

We deeply regret that some universities do not appear prepared to use the proposed UCAS tariff where it could be relevant and could increase flexibility as part of a strategy to achieve wider participation. We welcome the initiative taken by UCAS to develop a tariff-based system to provide a means of recognising the range of qualifications which now provide students with the necessary preparation for study in higher education.

69  50 per cent of the University of Oxford's young full-time undergraduate entrants in 1998-99 were admitted from independent schools. HEFCE, Performance indicators in higher education in the UK, October 2000. Back

70  Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, Press release 17 March 2000. Back

71  Q. 888. Back

72   The 'Russell Group' are named for the Russell Hotel in Russell Square, London where a caucus of certain universities would meet prior to meetings of the CVCP in nearby Tavistock Square. The 'Russell Group' is generally considered to comprise the more traditional and well-resourced part of the HE sector.  Back

73  QQ. 881-884. Back

74  Q. 887. Back

75  Oxford Magazine No. 158, 1998, page 3. Back

76  Q. 972. Back

77  Q. 1115. Back

78  Local Government Association, The rhythms of schooling, September 2000. Back

79  Q. 631. Back

80  Q. 1104. Back

81  Q. 1105. Back

82  Q. 1105. Back

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