University admissions overhaul as predictions fail to make grade

Education Editor,Richard Garner
Monday 13 June 2011 00:00

A radical overhaul of university admissions is on the cards in the wake of evidence showing more than half the predictions of A-level grade passes are wrong.

Ministers want to examine whether the UK could switch to a system whereby youngsters after to universities after they have got their grades – rather than , as at present, be granted provisional places on predicted grades.

Research by UCAS, the University and Colleges Admissions System, show that around 55 per cent of predictions are wrong.

In an interview with The Independent, Steve Smith, chairman of Universities UK – the body which represents vice-chancellors, said the vast majority of errors (47 per cent) were where predictions were too high. Only nine per cent of predictions were too low.

Plans for an overhaul to the system were first proposed in an inquiry set up by Labour in the mid 200’s. However, it proved impossible to reach agreement on how it could be carried out.

Universities were reluctant to delay the start of the autumn term while schools and exam boards did not want to bring A-levels forward for fear of curtailing the syllabus.

The new factor to emerge is a move towards online marking which should allow the results of exams to be brought forward.

The plan is expected to feature in the long awaited White Paper on higher education – expected to be published by the end of next month.

However, Professor Smith, who is also vice-chancellor of Exeter University, cautioned against the change – arguing that it could reduce social mobility and make it more difficult for disadvantaged youngsters to get into the leading universities.

“The people who over predict – in the main – are the state school teachers and further education colleges,”he said.

“You can then get a case – which you wouldn’t get with post-qualification application – where a youngster would miss by just one grade and the university would still let them in.

“Most of these wrong grades are a case, say, of a BBB becoming a BBC not an EEE,” he added

Two-thirds of all errors were just one grade out – while 84 per cent were no more than two grades different.

Further research at Bristol university had also shown that disadvantaged taken in on lower grades often outperformed at degree level those from the leafier suburbs and independent schools who had slightly higher grades.

The upshot, Professor Smith argued, was that disadvantaged youngsters with the prospect of a higher degree pass could be excluded if the change went ahead.

“I worry about the effect on widening participation. It’s one of the unintended consequences of changing the current system.”

Professor Smith also predicted that some universities planning to charge the maximum £9,000 a year may be forced to cut their fees the following year.

“The fee for 2012 doesn’t have to be the fee for 2013,” he said.

In an interview with The Independent last month, universities Minister David Willetts warned that some universities might have to cut their fees or offer inducements to students to fill their places next year in clearing.

Since then he has made it clear that they would be expected to cut the price for students enrolled before clearing as well to avoid the prospect of two youngsters sitting side-by-side in a lecture hall paying different fees for the same course.

However, Professor Smith said that would not apply to students recruited the following year – and he thought most would put off changes in fee structures until the following year if they had difficult filling places.

“If you get no students one year,. you’ve lost 33 per cent of your income,” he said.

“It would increase the financial pressure on the university but I don’t think there will be closures. there could be mergers.”

He said he believed there were a range of reasons why so many universities – about two-thirds – had applied to charge the maximum fee.

“I think it might be a sort of status thing – ‘if I don’t charge £9,000, am i going to be considered second-rate?’” he added.

“Some may want to use this as an opportunity not to be as big as they are now.“

”They may, say, want top take in 3,100 higher performers at £9,000 rather than the 4,000 they currently take in at £8,000. Institutions are planning a bit for the future.”

Professor Smith said he believed that if either Labour or the Conservatives had won an outright majority at the election they would have opted to introduce the recommendations of Lord Browne’s review of the fees structure in full, i.e gone for lifting the cap on fees entirely.

“The Browne review was set up with the agreement of both Peter Mandelson 9then Labour’s Business Secretary) and David Willetts.

“I think Labour and the Conservatives would have approved Browne.”

Asked about Oxford University’s vote of no confidence in Mr Willetts’ policies, he said he would have have relished speaking against it – but that the financial package for tomorrow’s students was one that he could promote.

“If you look at it as a mortgage. you’ve got a loan to buy a £1.5 million house, you don’t have to start paying it off until you’re earning £21,000 and it’s yours whatever happens after 30 years, I think I would accept that,” he said.

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