Calls have been made this week for university applications to take place after students have received their A-level grades, amidst accusations that the current system is prejudiced against pupils from poorer backgrounds. In its own review of the admissions process, UCAS itself admitted that the current system may result in unfair advantages for students from private schools. It has recommended an overhaul of the entire system comprising several major changes, most notably the idea that pupils should apply for university places on the basis of A-level results they have already achieved, not predicted grades.
The report examines the impact of the current system in detail, revealing that most of the areas in which it allows advantage to students from private schools are in no way deliberate or overt, but more unintended side effects. It is explained, for example, that under the current system an early application is likely to favour a candidate’s chances of success. So pupils from private schools with clued-up careers counsellors and Oxbridge tutors pushing them to apply at the very start of the process are advantaged over pupils from poorer backgrounds, who do not have access to the same sort of detailed advice on how best to exploit the system.
The report also suggests that the current early application date is in itself discriminatory, as many pupils may not yet have any idea about the details of different universities and what they may want to study, favouring families and schools with long traditions of elite university attendance who will be more familiar with the application process.
And perhaps most importantly, the current dependence on predicted grades and tutor references to decide the allocation of places gives a clear advantage to students from private schools with whole departments of staff geared up solely to propel pupils towards Oxbridge and other top universities. With the time, resources, contacts and experience to ring up an admissions tutor on behalf of a particular pupil and plead their case, these experienced navigators of the system provide a clear advantage to pupils from the most privileged schools.
The proposals lay out a comprehensive overhaul of the entire university applications system, including A-level exams to be moved earlier in the year, results to be received in July and all universities potentially to reveal candidates’ offers on one single day. But there are some concerns that the recommendations may be more aspirational than realistic. The logistical chaos of every student in the country receiving their offers on the same day is a serious issue to consider, and additional plans to reduce the number of universities a student can apply to and abolish the clearing system may cause serious problems for students who are not offered a place. It has been suggested that this might be addressed by allowing students immediately to reapply, potentially creating a fresh administrative mountain to climb.
Whilst the details of the proposals and how they might be successfully implemented have not yet been finalised, it seems generally accepted that it is necessary to move forwards on radically changing the system now that this bias has been discovered. However it must be acknowledged that the timing could not be worse. With tuition fees soaring to £9000 and every university individually rewriting its own funding and bursary support packages, university applicants, particularly those from poorer backgrounds, are already being bombarded with chaos and confusion. To overhaul the entire applications process within the same short timeframe would surely only throw the whole situation into yet further disarray. Until the dust has cleared from the government’s last hastily implemented scheme, it may be well advised to hold its horses on this one.