Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40
WEDNESDAY 14 MARCH 2001
40. That is an interesting point, which brings
me on to the second point about the strengths and weaknesses of
any points tariff. A-levels have been widely criticised, not least
on this Committee, for providing a fake gold standard for many
people because they do not necessarily give people who come through
the non-traditional route the opportunity to show their potential
and their qualifications when applying for university. However,
one of the things that was put to us in evidenceI think
we had this from one or two of the Oxbridge colleges and we were
critical, and I think rightly critical, of the rather dog in the
manger attitude that Oxford University displayed when they came
before us on this issueis that mature students, part-time
as well as full-time, get a better deal in some cases because
colleges and universities can examine their backgrounds more effectively
than they would do if there was a normal tariff system where all
these things were added up and some of these things could not
be taken into account. How would you respond to that criticism?
(Dr Higgins) In the same way as I responded to a question
earlier: you are not measuring people, individuals, by numbersneither
by grades nor by numbers. If I were an admissions tutor, which
I am not, I would like to see quite a balanced class, a balanced
year: I would like to see a mix of mature students and younger
students; I would like to see some overseas students in my year;
and I would be selecting a class or a year so that everybody would
get a balanced, round education. I would not necessarily be selecting
them on the basis of numbers or points.
41. I think that is an important point. Witnesses
came before us and said that A-levels were the gold standard and
they made it fairly clear that they thought that was the only
thing that should be considered. What you are saying in fact,
if I understand you rightly, is that the UCAS points tariff will
be a substantial advance on the present situation with A-levels
but it would still allow individual admissions tutors at university
to exercise flexibility in admission outside that.
(Dr Higgins) Absolutely.
42. If I could just finish on this point, that
means then that there really is no excuse or should be no excuse
for universities or university admissions officers dragging their
feet about accepting the tariff system on the grounds that it
would then rule out their discretion in other areas.
(Dr Higgins) I agree with you entirely. One university
prospectus I read the other day said that it would not be making
tariff points offers; on the other hand, it would use the tariff
to be able to compare and contrast qualifications in deciding
on what level of offer to make.
43. That makes your point.
(Dr Higgins) Yes.
Mr St Aubyn
44. A very simple question first of all, just
to understand the tariff. How do you score, say, a grade 8 distinction
in a music exam?
(Dr Higgins) That is not yet tariffed. What we are
tariffing will be all qualifications that go into the national
qualifications framework. I do not believe at the moment music
qualifications are yet in the national qualifications framework,
and neither at the moment, actually, is the IB, although it will
be fairly shortly.
45. Do you envisage that it might be in the
(Dr Higgins) I see no reason why not.
46. Does that not raise the issue that the problem
with any tariff is UCAS's view of the different worth of these
various qualifications? Should not inquiring universities perhaps
have their own view of what is the relative worth of these qualifications?
(Dr Higgins) I think they do, no doubt. But this is
not just the UCAS view. We have had in part a reference group
helping us to do this work from the various validating and quality
control bodies around the United Kingdom and now we are working
closely with the Department of Education Studies at the University
of Oxford, who are helping us out on this.
47. Do you think that moving to the tariff system
has any impact on what you mentioned earlier, fraud in the system?
Will it make it easier or harder to detect fraud?
(Dr Higgins) I think it is neither one nor the other.
48. I raised the issue of the tariff with Manchester
College in Oxford, who take none of their students from conventional
routes and very few with A-levels at all, and they said that they
found adopting a tariff, because it did not recognise yet some
of the things that it is planned to (professional qualifications,
the IB, BTEC), would actually limit the flexibility that they
have at the moment, because they already have a scheme, as they
see it, of ensuring that they can look at whatever qualifications
people have, whether they are academic or vocational, and trying
to prematurely formalise that into a tariff, until that tariff
is as wide and as tested as possible, would limit their options.
I got the impression that that was a reasonable approach to take
until the tariff was ready for them and they were ready for the
tariff; it did not imply that they were not looking at those other
(Dr Higgins) University colleges always have had and
always will have the flexibility to admit whichever students they
want to. They do not have to rely just on grades. They do not
have to rely on numbers. The tariff has its uses because there
are those institutions who have given points offers in the past
and there will be more points offers in the future, and it has
its uses in that we now have for the first time the line drawn
between vocational and academic, the AS and the A2, and also,
very importantly, the higher and advanced higher levels. But there
is nothing to prevent Manchester College or any other university
college admitting whichsoever students it wishes to, providing
they can matriculate whatever their rules are.
49. But if they are admitting people from conventional
backgrounds with unconditional offers, saying, "Right, we
have interviewed you and we will have you, even though we have
not looked at you in the round," then there is not much merit
in adopting a tariff if they are not setting
(Dr Higgins) They may be one of those who choose not
to adopt it.
50. May I ask you about advanced extension A
levels. Halsey and McCrum were of the view that the entrance examination
to Oxfordand the data on success rates would suggest this
stronglycreated major advantages for those who were able
to prepare students for that exam. The success rates have now
equalised, and in fact you have a slightly greater chance of success
if you apply from the state sector to Oxford now, once you apply,
but that movement only really started after the entrance exam
was abolished some years ago. Is there a danger, trying to distinguish
between the most able, who are getting the top A-level grades,
by this sort of exam will create, unless allowance is made, some
advantages for those schools who (a) can prepare their students
and (b) are required to be shown to be doing well in this sort
of thing as part of the marketing strategy to get customers.
(Dr Higgins) Yes, I think there is that danger. There
is another danger of discrimination in that the advanced extension
levels are only available to those doing GCE/A level syllabuses
and not the vocational certificate syllabuses.
51. Some people have argued that a better way
of distinguishing between the high achieving people, who are all
getting, for instance, three As and applying to read particularly,
say, medicine at the more selective universities, like Oxford,
would be to interview and to use observational studies that are
very much harder to prepare for, such as the work of Dr Jane Mallanby
and others who are trying to find ways of distinguishing potential
without allowing people to prepare. For example, SATs, if you
could buy a few more points for a few hundred dollars by actually
having preparation classes for SATs, which were designed to spot
intelligence and potential rather than preparation. Should you
perhaps be promoting that sort of approach in those small minority
of cases where to select people who are all getting the top A-level
(Dr Higgins) We promote the approach of trying to
use whatever method is availablesome development of SATs
might be one of the possibilities, but I think the jury is still
out on that onethat can predict the suitability or the
potential of a student to succeed in higher education and not
just to select on the basis of grades.
52. You are aware of the work that Dr Mallanby
did on this subject?
(Dr Higgins) Yes. If this country decides it would
like to use something along the lines of SATs, not precisely the
American example, developed over here then UCAS would be more
than happy to administer it.
53. Certain members of our Committee, after
our visit to the United States, were less convinced about the
SATs. I think we rather could be said to have changed our minds
about the usefulness of SATs after our visit to the United States,
as was reflected certainly in the majority of the report. May
I take you back to post qualification access, which is very important.
Of course our 10/20 per cent premium gives a real incentive for
higher education institutions to follow the money and have the
resources to find talented people from non-traditional backgrounds,
but also the common application date. I mean, I see those as very
much at the heart of our report and many other things as well.
Let us go back to PQA because I do not know if we drew enough
out of you on that.
(Dr Higgins) I first proposed PQA in February 1993
at a conference in London and I was told to stop meddling. But
gradually it has developed a head of steam. We have examined the
possibility of introducing it twice now, and at the moment, even
with very sophisticated IT, there just is insufficient time between
the publication of the A-level results, or now the vocational
studies results as well, in mid-August, to get students into universities
by the beginning of the academic year, which is reckoned to be
for this purpose mid-September because there are some universities
who want to complete a semester by Christmas. The only two ways
to meand the UCAS board is perfectly well behind thisis
either to change the start of the university year, which is fraught
with all kinds of problems because of international relationships
and so on, or to see if we can bring the examining forwardhence,
I think, this curious invitation for me to serve on the Local
Government Association's commission on examining the school year.
I believe that if we could have exams taken in what would be term
five (which would be prior to the hay fever time, which would
be another advantage), then the results could be out by the middle
of July or perhaps the early part of July and then there would
be sufficient time to conduct a PQA. You would probably have three
choices. Almost certainly the course choice would be sequential
to the university or colleges you would apply to. There might
be the need for a very mini clearing system.
54. Just a quick detail on thatand I
have some strong reservations about it myself. Given the strong
momentum in A levels to modular structure, where in fact you probably
know 80 per cent of the student's grade at a particular A level
before they take their final examination, is there any scope for
telescoping the time between setting final exams for A level and
actually producing the results for them, which would obviously
assist the process as well?
(Dr Higgins) That is a question, I am afraid, which
will have to be directed towards the audit awards bodies.
55. You have not had those discussions. What
I am saying is you have not taken that particular issue up with
(Dr Higgins) We have taken it up with them many times.
When we have talked about it in the past, they have said, "Well,
there is such a quality control exercise that you cannot possibly
truncate the time." One interesting thing here is that there
are courses, as you rightly say, the AS examinations, where those
young people, students, who at the end of year 12 have got AS
grades in three or four subjects for their conduit to higher education,
will have results. For the first time admissions tutors can see
not only what they have done at GCSE, as they have always done,
but also how they have performed in a public examination in those
three or four critical subjects. You then possibly have the beginnings,
even if we maintain the system as it is, of a sort of PQA, because
you are applying after you have got certain qualifications. If
we can then, over a period of years, if we then get to PQA, find
that performance at AS level turns out to be a pretty good predictor
of performance at A level or A2, then there would be much more
sureness in so far as admissions tutors are using the grades of
whom they would be selecting.
56. If it is not telling tales out of school,
in the private discussion we have just had Christopher Price described
the coalition of support for PQA. He thought there was just one
group that was rather against PQA. Who is not part of the coalition
(Dr Higgins) I think that everybody will go on to
PQA if it could be managed. There are some conservatives in the
higher education sector who perhaps are quite happy with the way
things are going at the moment. They recruit adequate students
who graduate well, they get good researchers, they get good post-graduate
students, but if the time could be right I think everybody would
buy into it and be perfectly happy with it.
57. One more question, linking in again. What
I am slightly concerned about is this. We have had this discussion
and different things have been probed here but on the one hand
we have had a group of people here -and this is part of our reportwho
want to see applications to universities judged in a transparent
and open and fair way. There is a bit of you that seems to be
saying, "This is all very well because we are going to get
post qualification access with a tariff." There is a high
degree of anonymity here, you decide on the student, basically
on the piece of paper that you see before you. There is another
bit of you that seems to be saying, "Ah, but we are providing
all this other information and anyway universities can bring in
all sorts of other factors to decide on an application."
I am sensing an ambivalence between the anonymity: "You get
the grades, you get the A levels. Post qualification, that is
what gets you in. What are the universities actually doing?"
and the sort of touchy-feely other way, with lots of other things
built in. Do you see what I am saying?
(Dr Higgins) Yes, but we are not talking anonymity
here, Barry. There must be much more to selecting students than
simply putting in marks or grades. One of the transparencies that
the universities are introducing is that they are, most of them
at any rate, preparing so-called entry profiles which list the
criteria against which the students will be selected. It is not
just the A-level grades but it is also the other skills and qualities
that they are looking for. That is when the person can judge,
"Am I the sort of person they are going to select or not?"
Mr St Aubyn
58. You have mentioned that you felt it was
up to examining boards to address the sort of nuts and bolts of
this, but do you, as UCAS, have a feeling that the whole process
could be speeded up? Is there too much reliance on the old ways
of doing it?
(Dr Higgins) I do not know. I am sufficiently inexperienced
in examining. There are many more candidates than there used to
be many years ago and they are still managing to produce the results
in the same time frame, but I just do not know. One helpful thing
would be right at the very outset, that UCAS gets the applicants'
results six days before they do, and they just pass them on to
universities and colleges over the line. They know exactly what
they are going to do with their students, to accept them or not,
as the case may be. If we can have them six days before the applicants
get them, if it is a post qualification system then the applicants
would get them six days earlier than they do already, so already
there is a week shaved off there. But it has got to be much more
59. You contemplate having a slightly earlier
exam and an earlier result. That would create a sort of mini gap,
would it not? The problem is what to do with the students once
they have taken their exam, because already they are taking their
exam long before the end of the school term in the summer. What
happens to them during that period?
(Dr Higgins) That term six, which is, right throughout
the school career, reckoned to be an enrichment term, would be
the term when they would start seriously researching where they
are going to apply to and perhaps their choices. That might make
life difficult for the university because they will be examining
at that stage, and it may not make it that easy for them to hold
interviews, but that would be the term, term six, in which they
would be preparing. They would read their prospectuses, which
would be published much later than they otherwise would have been.
They have a pretty good idea by then probably what they are going
to get at A level or whatever.