Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20
WEDNESDAY 14 MARCH 2001
20. Who determines when UCAS sets the deadline
for universities? Where is the power, in other words, in determining
the deadline for applications. As you know, the recommendation
from the Committee was that there should be a common date. That,
it seemed to us, would simplify, take away certain barriers about
the procedures. If there were a common date which everybody knew,
that would simplify matters and, we believe, make it fairer. Who
should determine that?
(Dr Higgins) It is a decision made by the UCAS board,
usually after consultation with its members; that is to say, member
institutions and others with whom they will consult, including
schools and colleges. This is a very interesting one because one
of our deadlines is much later than the new 15 January deadlinethat
is in Marchbecause we are looking to recruit students to
studio-based art and design courses who have come from diagnostic
foundation courses. So already there is a much later closing date
for them. We have decided to extend the closing date this year,
or from next year onwards, to 15 January, to give people more
time to decide what they want to do. That might present a difficulty
for Oxford and Cambridge. At the moment, in the way that they
consider their applicants, where they interview virtually every
applicant they haveall from the whole of fieldand
it is a residential interview, they probably would not be able
to do that until the Easter vacation, by which stage all other
decisions would be made. It is an issue that we will have to take
21. If you set a deadline and the universities
decide not to play ball, presumably they have it in their remit,
as Oxford and Cambridge, to say, "Well, actually, we will
not use that system."
(Dr Higgins) No. They have to abide by the rules and
they have to give everybody equal consideration up to that deadline.
When the deadline passes -and there will be probably, this year,
something like 334,000 applicants already
22. For what? For all universities?
(Dr Higgins) For all universities and collegesand
that number will go up by another 100,000 between now and the
beginning of the academic yearbut when they pass that deadline,
then applicants are only considered at the institutions' discretion.
If they have very few places left, well, tough, and if it is a
subject in low demand, then they will be snapped up.
23. Why have we not reached this situation which
we are heading for before? What have been the barriers or what
do you anticipate might be the further barriers in achieving what
the Committee is looking for?
(Dr Higgins) I hope that the Committee is trying to
achieve a post qualification application system. That is something
which I first proposed as long back as 1993.
24. You were on the Committee chaired by Christopher
(Dr Higgins) That is right, yes. We had a consultation
conference about six or seven weeks ago. The churches were there,
the travel industry, the teacher unions and the head teachers
unions. It will be very interesting to see eventually what emerges
from the whole consultation, but the one thing that bound all
togetherand there were critics of the proposals and supporterswas
the concept of the PQA: being able to apply after you have got
25. That is very reassuring and very encouraging.
(Dr Higgins) I was actually quite excited by it.
26. A very strong head of steam for PQA.
(Dr Higgins) Absolutely.
Mr St Aubyn
27. Incidentally, I saw your letter congratulating
us on a great report. As you know, there were two reports, one
of which quoted extensively your own views, and I will not embarrass
you by asking you which one you were particularly referring to!
I want to compare and contrast these two approaches. One is focusing
on whether students are first generation and the second is which
post code they come from. It seems to me that in both cases there
is no absolutely certain method of trying to identify the sort
of students we are talking about. Presumably they are both rough
and ready approaches to the problem.
(Dr Higgins) I do not think they are quite as rough
and ready as some people suggest. We may be one of the only organisations
in the country which collects social class in the normal way,
through parental background, and also collects post codes. The
post code analysis does appear to be quite a good proxy for social
class. I know somebody who used to live in Gateshead in a very
big, smart house but he was in one of the worst post code areas
in the whole of the country. So there are some exceptions but
I think it is pretty good.
28. I do not like to say it, but you could have
a mansion in Gateshead or you could live in a council flat in
(Dr Higgins) Yes.
29. In terms of your human rights' issue, it
is sort of raised for that, I think. It is presented: if you come
from a less well off home in an area where the post code is deemed
to be well off, then you are getting a raw deal, particularly
under the system proposed by the Government. If the majority of
the report's recommendations were to come through, with more funding,
that might be where people might start complaining, do you think,
under the human rights' legislation, that they were getting a
(Dr Higgins) I imagine it would be very difficult
to pin down. Very difficult.
30. I am trying to understand where this human
rights' issue really plays for individual characters. Where is
their grief actually going to get a hearing under this system?
(Dr Higgins) Let us just suppose, for example, a university
that is saying, "We think we are going to take in more people
with Bs, Cs and Ds at A-level than we necessarily have in the
pastafter all, performance at A-level is not necessarily
a brilliant predictor of performance at degree level." I
think one of the universities made that announcement a couple
of years ago and there was an outcry from the independent sector:
"This is not fair. We are trying to get our people in with
As and you are taking people with Bs, Cs and Ds." That could
beand I am no lawyerdiscrimination in some way,
shape or form under the Human Rights Act. It could be.
31. Does UCAS have any role at all in ensuring
that the application process is fair? Or are you just there as
a process in the middle between the students on the one side and
the higher education institutions on the other?
(Dr Higgins) No, we have a role to try and see that
it is fair. But I think, again, it comes through in one of the
Committee's recommendations in the first report that we need to
do some fairly in depth work to understand how the admissions
process actually works. What influences people to apply or not
to apply or where to apply? How are decisions taken by admissions
staff? What makes young people decide not to accept one offer
or to accept another? Then, once we know exactly how it all worksand,
again, I agree with the Committee there should be some increased
professionalisation in the way that the applications system is
managedwe could perhaps try to bring together a PI based
on fairnessthe fairness shown by institutions as well as
fairness shown by the applicants.
32. To be clear, if I had a constituent who
felt that their child had been unfairly discriminated against
(Dr Higgins) You would write to me.
33. We could certainly write to you about it.
(Dr Higgins) I would take it up with the university.
Particularly if your constituent said, "Well, the university
said the course was filled up on a first-come, first served basis
and I did not apply until the middle of November, when it was
too late." That would then be a cause for a letter from me
to the Vice Chancellor to keep your admissions procedures in order.
On the other hand, if your constituent was complaining about the
fact that he or she had gone all the way up to the far North and
had only been given a five-minute interview, and did not think
that was fair, then I think we would wish to take that up with
the university again. But you should know that the Quality Assurance
Agency is at the moment putting together a code of practice on
admissions and applications issues. It has always worried me that
in all this work that the Government is doing in relation to complaints
procedures in universities and colleges, when it comes to the
applicant they are not actually owned by the university or college,
they are just a completely free agent so at the moment they are
not subject to any quality control.
34. How many complaints of the sort that Nick
mentioned do you get every year?
(Dr Higgins) Very few. I could let you know: we will
publish them in our annual report. But it is not that many.
Mr St Aubyn: I would like to ask some questions
about the tariff system, but we will be coming on to that later.
Dr Harris: About this issue of discrimination,
in paragraph 97 of our report it says: "HEFCE has noted that
for any given total of A-level points, students from comprehensive
schools obtain higher classes of degree than those from independent
schools." There are similar findings from McNabb, Pal and
Sloane in their study, which showed that in 1992 students from
maintained schools were a fifth more likely to have been awarded
a first class honours degree. The corollary of that is that there
are people who would have done better at a lower points score,
or as well, who are not allowed in. Let us say they get two Bs
and a C, and they do not get the three Bs that people from the
private sector are getting regularly because they have the extra
coaching and so forth, all the advantages that people want to
buy in the private sector. The fact that that gap exists shows
that effectively there is discrimination now, if one accepts that
final degree result is a better judge of whether your selection
is correct rather than A-level points score, which is a marker
as to who will do well. Is it not the case at the moment that
if nothing happens to act on what appears to be a failure to take
into account those differences, then there is already discrimination
and cause for complaint from a class of people for whom no effort
is being made to ensure that allowances are made?
35. Did you get the thrust of that, Tony?
(Dr Higgins) Yes, I sort of got lost halfway through,
but ... I do not know is the answer to that. I would really like
to see some more work done. The last work on this was done years
ago, on the relationship between qualifications on entering and
degree classification. I would also like to see some work donewhich
I have seen attempted but so far I think anyone who has attempted
it has failedactually how to calculate value added.
(Dr Higgins) There will be those who doubtless will
say, "You must take people with the best possible grades,"
without necessarily looking at the added value. But, then again,
there are those who will think in the opposite way.
37. At paragraph 100 we had a recommendation
for you, which in your note to Barry you do not mention: "We
recommend that HEFCE, UCAS and others should commission research
into the relative performance in higher education of equally qualified
students educated in both independent and state funded schools."
The point I am makingand I will try and put it another
way with some numbersis that if you take 100 students,
50 from a comprehensive school and 50 from a private school, with
the same A-level results, then you will get a conglomeration of
higher success rates skewed towards the comprehensive school status;
whereas if you took 20 of your comprehensive applicants from a
one A-level point score or two and below, it is only that which
gives you parity, for reasons I think I have hinted at, that it
is actually harder to get good A-levels from a less strong educational
background, socially and schoolwise. So is it not right to make
allowances in order to approach that equalisation?
(Dr Higgins) Yes, I think it is, because you are not
going to select somebody on the basis of A-level scores or highers
or advanced highers or GNVQ or whatever; you are going to try
and select on the basis of the student's potential. The A-level
will measure what you have just done; it will not necessarily
measure how you are going to achieve in the future.
38. Is there not the danger with post qualification
application that it is all there on a piece of paper? If we have
100 applicants with three Bs and 100 places, we will give those
100 places to people with the three Bs; whereas previously you
had the 20 applicants, all of whom were predicted to get three
Bs, some of whom got two Bs and a C, and some of those who got
two Bs and a C were accepted because they were over-predicted
or those allowances were made about their background.
(Dr Higgins) Not necessarily. It depends what you
write in your personal statement, for example. I have had fathers
and students or their teachers complaining that their charges
have got three As or are going to get three As and did not get
a place in medicine. Then you read the personal statement and
you can see that this particular person clearly did not want to
become a doctor and actually wanted to go into medical research.
Well, there are other avenues for going into medical research
rather than spending five years training as a doctor. So there
is more to it than just using the A-levels predicted or achieved.
I do recall recommendation 100and my colleagues will doubtless
pick up on it on Fridaybut I would love to see some work
done to see what the relationship is between qualifications on
entry and degree performance, assuming that degree performance
is the right measure.
39. In a wayand, Evan, I am not criticising
you for itEvan's rather labyrinthine questions and the
complex situation you have gone into leads me rather nicely to
the concerns that we expressed in the report about the so-called
gold standard situation with A-levels. Obviously I know that you,
when you came before us previously, were vociferous and supportive
of your own initiatives for bringing forward the tariff. I wanted
on that particular issue just to put a couple of points to you
that come out of comments that we received both at the time and
subsequently. You have just been talking about the whole issue
of potentialand let me say I am a strong supporter of the
tariff principlebut if one of the purposes of that is to
recognise potential and also to flag up potential applicants at
an earlier stage, why should the GCSE results of a particular
candidate not be used as part of the mixing equation in your tariff?
(Dr Higgins) What we are doing in the tariff currentlyand
we have come a long way since we started the work on itis
to measure qualifications at 18-plus and beyond; in other words,
at level 3. The main thrust, apart from to try to get some reality
into the numbers, was to try to get some parity of esteem for
vocational and academic qualifications. It is a long way to get
thereand we still have one or two qualifications to tariff,
including the International Baccalaureate. The next question is:
Will we develop a credit framework, both at level 3 and also in
higher education andyou are perhaps rightshould
we then try to get some kind of tariff mechanism to calculate
GCSE scores and NVQ as well? That is going to be very difficult
because we shall doubtless be mixing one set of numbers for another
set of numbers. It is all predicated on a particular pass at A-level
or AS-level, and the GCSE is a rather different animal, but there
is no reason why we should not do that.