Mike Nicholson looks at the challenges universities face in the 2021 admissions round
Somewhere in the Department for Education, overworked civil servants will be trying to decide how to engage with tens of thousands of individual submissions to the recent consultation on qualification assessments for 2021.
From a university admissions perspective, there are a number of pressing issues that we need answers to in order to ensure that our processes will be both fair and effective this year.
First, what is the grade distribution likely to be? On the assumption that we will have a process that heavily weights towards teacher assessments, a sensible approach would be to assume that qualifications from the four UK nations will follow a similar pattern to 2020 and that there will be a lot of A* and Distinction* grades in play this summer.
Historically, the stability in grade distribution served as a way to limit the number of students who cleared the hurdle established by an offer. This year, for selective courses that need to offset the risk of over-recruiting, the main control will be to reduce the number of offers made in the first place so that they have fewer offer holders in play. Universities getting it a bit wrong will have the option to accept those who have missed the offer grade or look for more students in clearing.
Many offers have already been issued (and some universities have taken the bold step of reducing their entry conditions to address student anxiety about disruption to their education). We have also now gone past the 29 January point of equal consideration in the Ucas admissions process. So universities will at least have a good idea of the size of the challenge they face.
Next, when will applicants and universities receive results? There is a recommendation in the consultation that to reduce student anxiety it will be better this year for students to receive their results before the results are provided to universities. This is so that if students don’t achieve the required grades for their offer, they can use the (yet to be determined) appeals process and hopefully secure a regrade.
Setting aside for a moment the challenges involved in running an appeals process based on evaluating a teacher assessment without recourse to an externally validated examination, this raises an issue: If students achieve their results directly and the university hasn’t had confirmation through the awarding bodies and Ucas of what those results are, how long will it be before those students are on the phone, email or turning up on campus to request confirmation of a place? And what does the university do? Take each student’s word for it? Ask for validation from their school? Wait for the results to eventually arrive through Ucas?
We already have experience of this on a limited scale with qualifications such as the International Baccalaureate, and for a couple of hundred students for any one university this is just about manageable. But if the entire intake of several thousand are directly contacting the university to seek guidance or confirmation of places then the whole system could fall over.
Given that the vast majority of courses and universities show some flexibility when making final decisions (and will also have tried-and-tested systems in place to take into account declared mitigating factors that may have a bearing on the offer holder’s situation), it will be much better if decisions on places can be made through the university getting first sight of the assessed results. This is likely to result in many students being accepted even if they have not quite met their offer conditions. The smaller group that is not successful in securing a place can then engage with the appeals process, which can operate more efficiently as a result.
As things stand, we risk receiving Welsh, English, Northern Irish and international A-levels on different days (and several weeks apart), with BTEC and other vocational awards also somewhere in the mix. While we typically get international qualifications over a span of several weeks (from late June through to mid-August), the relatively small numbers are manageable. But to receive the main bulk of the results in a haphazard fashion raises important questions about the fairness and transparency of admissions decisions.
The danger is an outcome in which the fastest nation to get its results out will gain a significant advantage in securing places. It is notable that in the many discussions about a post-qualification admissions process, one of the prerequisites for an effective system will be an alignment of UK results; without having a common date for receipt of results this year, we run the risk of having a fragmented and unfair admissions process.
Will there be unforeseen interventions? Arguably one of the most unsettling elements of the 2020 cycle was the tendency for sudden shifts in policy around presentation of qualification results, how appeals processes would function and the operation of the admissions process. The purpose of the recent consultation was to try to ensure clarity in how assessments this year would work and how results would be reported—and to make these decisions in a timescale that allowed students, teachers, parents and universities to put in place systems to ensure as little disruption and uncertainty as possible.
No-one underestimates the challenges we face in this admissions cycle to run a system that is fair to applicants and also ensures that students avoid considerable uncertainty and stress in a situation over which they have no agency. Equally, however, university admissions teams need to be trusted to operate professionally and deliver on an outcome that also addresses institutional concerns about over-recruitment to courses on which capacity may be limited.
Mike Nicholson is director of undergraduate admissions and outreach at the University of Bath. He is writing here in a personal capacity.