In 2015, AS-levels, which were taken after one year at sixth-form college, were scrapped by Michael Gove. This reform left students with their predicted grades as the predominant indicator of what grades they may achieve after their second year. However, only 16% of students go on to receive their predicted grades, whilst 75% of students are predicted higher grades than they go on to obtain. Should one of the most celebrated higher education systems in the world be relying on guesswork for its admissions?
What’s more, research from the UCL Institute of Education shows that schools tend to under-predict the grades of students from low-income backgrounds, when compared to their wealthier peers. This means that disadvantaged students are more likely to attend a university for which they are over-qualified – a move which may limit their future career prospects.
As university offers are granted based on unreliable guesses, universities give out more offers but set their entry requirements higher. However, after exam results are released, in order to fill the places on some courses, universities award places to those who missed their conditional offer, often by a large margin. This begs the question of why the entry requirements were so high in the first place; it is because university admissions teams have no idea how many students will receive the grades, as they recognise that predicted grades are notoriously incorrect.
But the unreliability of predicted grades and the subsequent uncertainty over university places does not just affect higher education institutions, it causes stress and anxiety for the students applying to university during an already stressful year of A-level exams. Students’ predicted grades may land them with five offers from fantastic universities, but if they do not meet these grades then they have to go through clearing. Record numbers of students this year sought places through clearing because they did not meet the entry requirements for their first-choice university. This can be incredibly difficult for students as they scramble for remaining places at universities they never considered previously. They are forced to make quick decisions as to where to spend the next three or more years of their lives in a few hours, before course quotas are full.
It’s clear that such a heavy reliance on uncertain, largely over-optimistic predicted grades is not sustainable. But does this mean we need a complete overhaul of the current university admissions system? The Labour Party want to introduce post-qualification admissions (PQA) where students apply for university places once they know their A-level grades. Predicted grades and clearing would be things of the past, minimising the time spent on applications for students, universities, and teachers alike. Provided this reform were introduced while maintaining the usual elements of the application process like interviews (where necessary) and references, it would create a fairer, more efficient admissions system.
Alternatively, a less radical proposal to Labour’s overhaul of university admissions is to introduce official exams moderated by exam boards at the end of Year 12. These exams would not have to count towards final A-level grades, but they would help to inform universities about student potential and be a useful guide for students when deciding which courses to apply for. Michael Gove was criticised by universities, including Cambridge, when he scrapped AS-levels because they were a useful component in the admissions process and took away from the reliance on unreliable predicted grades.
Whether it be through Year 12 exams or Labour’s proposal of post-qualification admissions, it’s clear from the evidence that came out of this year’s A-level results day that we must create a fairer admissions system that does not disadvantage certain students. Post-qualification admissions would require slight changes to the A-level timetable, and the university term start date would have to be pushed back to October. But crucially, exams could be marked faster and more efficiently to allow more time for the admissions process, which could take place in August and September. These changes may at first seem drastic, but a broken system cannot continue.