Make exams earlier to end injustice, ministers urged

New proposals from the UK's Universities and Colleges Admissions Service say students should only apply to university after receiving their A-level results – not before.

For aspiring graduates everywhere, it has become a rite of passage: sixth-form students apply to university, receive conditional offers of places, and then do their A-levels to try to get the grades they need to match.

But this familiar process could be about to change. Under new proposals from Britain's Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), pupils would not apply to university until after they have received their A-Level results. Offers would then be solid rather than conditional, based on the actual grades received rather than on speculation.

In the current system, pupils apply with their predicted results. All too often, however, the exam crystal ball turns out to be a little skewed – only 45% of forecast grades are accurate.

Basing one of life's biggest decisions – where and whether to go to university – on inaccurate information is not ideal. Worse yet is the fact that grade accuracy falls to 39% among the lowest socio-economic groups, hinting at a rather deeper problem.

Teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds are often predicted lower grades than they actually get. Less confident about their abilities, they tend to make modest university applications, only to find on results day that they could have set their sights higher.

This means that the current admissions process – with applications based on predicted grades – favours self-assured pupils, with lots of resources behind them and high expectations of university from parents and teachers.

Changing the system could be a major step in getting less privileged students into the best universities, now disproportionately populated by those from fee-paying schools.

But the reform would involve a dramatic overhaul, moving A-Levels forward to April, and results and applications to early summer. It will face tough opposition. Many schools and universities argue that such a tight timespan would seriously inhibit learning in the final year of school, and that processing applications in just a few months would cause chaos for universities.

A useful step?

As fees rocket, the effort to ensure fair access to universities has never been more important – but are the latest UCAS proposals a useful step? They would encourage more diverse candidates to apply to top universities, which would certainly be an improvement on the current situation.

But they would also cause a lot of upheaval without solving the fundamental problem: the prejudice that means less is expected from those from disadvantaged backgrounds. That inequality of expectation is the thing that society really needs to address.

You Decide

  1. What should be done to solve inequality in university admissions?
  2. Could universities be justified in practicing positive discrimination – favouring pupils from state schools over those from private schools – in selecting their students?

Activities

  1. Conduct your own university interviews. What do you look for in a successful candidate?
  2. Create a display of admissions statistics for universities, with comparisons of how different types of schools are represented.

Some People Say...

“Of all the things you do in school, exams are the least important.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So what's the big problem with access?
It has long been recognised that those from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to apply to the best universities, where students from independent schools are over-represented. At Cambridge, for example, only 58% of students are from state schools, despite making up 93% of the national school population.
Why is that?
There's a whole range of reasons. Independent schools often have better resources, and a tradition of applications to top universities. Schools, though, aren't the whole story. More subtle influences, like family background, have a big effect, and many point out that even those students who come from state schools are more likely to have parents who have been to university, and who are supportive of higher education.

Word Watch

UCAS
Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. UCAS manages the applications of every potential student to the university of their choice.
Socio-economic group
Where someone fits in broad groupings of social class. Though ways of measuring it vary, someone's socioeconomic position is generally worked out through analysis of occupation, education, and income.
Rite of Passage
An almost ritualistic activity or event, which someone must go through in their transition from one period of life to another.
Conditional
When something rests on meeting certain conditions – in this case, a university place is conditional on getting certain A-Level grades.
Disproportionate
Too large or small compared to something else – in this case, not reflecting the true balance of independent and state schools in Britain.