As it is the first time in a number of years that A-level results are based upon actual external exams, should we not now be questioning the UK university application process?
This is an issue that I have raised with a number of secretaries of state for education, although not recently as they appear to be changing on a daily basis.
It is interesting that Conservative Party leadership candidate Liz Truss is pushing to allow students with top grades a second chance to apply to Oxbridge, if their initial pre-results application failed.
Let’s look at the current application process. Students usually begin researching university courses towards the end of Year 12. This is continued at the start of Year 13, intensifying immediately for those students looking at Oxbridge, veterinary, medicine and law, where applications need to be submitted mid-October. Other courses and universities have longer and final applications need to be made by the middle of Term 2 in Year 13.
“The current system takes students away from their studies, which is the crucial component of securing a university place.”
These applications involve both personal statements and teacher references. They involve open day visits and possible interviews. After this lengthy process, the offers are made and usually subject to grades achieved which are published in August at the end of Year 13. Students then either accept offers, look at alternatives, defer for a year or plug into the clearing system.
The impact of this system as I see it is that it takes students away from their studies, which in all honesty, appears to be the crucial component of securing a university place, as most offers are still subject to final grades.
Throughout the application process the A-level curriculum content still needs to be delivered and taught, students are expected to play a full and active role in 6th Form or college life, but the application process requires time and focus. This is where I feel the tension exists.
“It is fairer for all students as some schools are far better at supporting applications than others.”
A fairer process on so many levels would be for the application process to take place post grades where students can apply to appropriate universities where their grades match requirements and a more focussed application can be made. Additionally, students are not torn between study requirements and application deadlines. They can focus 100 per cent throughout their A-level studies upon gaining the very best grades to secure places at university.
I believe it is also fairer for all students as some schools are far better at supporting students with applications than others. Post-grade applications mean that students’ abilities are rewarded, not their ability to write a great application. Remember, if a student does not receive an offer based upon their application, even if they secured the grades to access that university, places would have already been offered and their only chance of entry is through clearing. This is a lottery and subject to those already offered a place either declining it or not making the grade offer. This is far too unreliable.
“The Government’s arguments against the change are illogical.”
A better system would be to move the application system to after results where students actually have known grades. Would there be time? I believe there would be and when I wrote to the Department for Education a few years ago with this suggestion, their reply did not give me reason to think it could not work.
Let’s look at it practically. If we could move grade publication a week earlier in August and start university late September or beginning of October for First Year students, that gives 7 full weeks of focus. Remember, students have the grades so this should be straight forward.
Interestingly, the initial reply I received from the DfE was that a change to such a system would mean additional costs to schools and universities. Having been a head of school for 15 years I cannot see what cost to schools this switch would have.
I challenged this with the DfE and the reply was that the cost would be to universities. Upon challenging it again the DfE explained that students like to know where they are going and to finalise their accommodation as this removes anxiety. However, if the offers are still subject to grades, which are published in mid-August, students still do not have certainty of where they are going, so this is a very illogical argument.
Having banged this drum for a number of years a letter will be heading to the new Prime Minister, new Minister of State for Education and Chair of the Education Select Committee, Robert Halfron, who I believe shares a similar view. We need to think beyond four political years and do what is right for students.
I hope that the whole application system has a massive overhaul that will be focussed upon students and their learning. It appears that a post grade system will allow students the greatest opportunity to focus upon their A level course content, to focus upon securing the best grades to successfully access universities. Anything else is a distraction and not in the students’ best interests.