Unlike most university application processes found around the world, the current application process in parts of the UK requires students to apply for university places using only their predicted grades as evidence for their academic ability. Offers are then made based upon these predicted grades. According to research, only one in six A-level grades is correctly predicted by teachers, with only ten per cent of students having all three grades correctly predicted.
A system that uses these clearly inaccurate scores to determine which students are offered places inevitably ends up favouring some students and disadvantaging others. A report published by The University and College Union (UCU) highlights the problems associated with this process and calls for reforms that would see students applying to universities only after they have received their actual results.
The report claims that the proposed reforms would aid disadvantaged students. Research carried out by UCU found that certain groups of students, in particular students from ethnic minority backgrounds, were left in a disadvantaged position when applying with their predicted grades under the current system, as they were often predicted grades that did not reflect what they would actually achieve. A 2011 UCAS study also found that students from disadvantaged backgrounds were worse off in the current system because they received less support and advice during the process. Because the application process happens early in the last year of school, students have very little time to properly research universities and courses. This means students coming from families who are familiar with the process are in a notably better position. Similarly, students from schools that recruit teachers who have more experience with the process and are confident to argue their student’s case to universities are favoured by the current system.
Under the proposed new system, students would only apply once they had received their real results, allowing both students and universities to make properly informed decisions. Students would benefit from the additional time they would have to research universities and would be spared the disappointment of being rejected from a university when they failed to achieve the grades they had been predicted. Universities would be able to select students in a fairer and more efficient way. Both parties would avoid the tedious clearing and readjustment period. For this new system to be implemented there would obviously need to be further changes to both the examination and university application processes. The report recommends changing exam dates so that students sit exams and receive results earlier. It also recommends students starting their first year of university later in the year that previously to allow time for students to apply for and accept places.
Another issue discussed is the dramatic rise in the number of ‘unconditional offers’ being made to students in recent years. Used as an incentive for students with high predicted grades to shun other universities and ‘firm’ that university as a safe option, many teachers and education officials feel these offers lead to students losing motivation to do well in their exams. The reforms proposed by the UCU would put an end to unconditional offers, with the hope that this will prevent students from ‘taking their foot off the pedal’.
A complete reorganisation of the application process would help to level the playing field for all students and avoid the confusion and disappointment caused by inaccurate predicted grades. Scrapping unconditional offers and awarding university places purely on actual achieved results would motivate students to achieve the best they can. Although considerable restructuring of school and university term dates may be involved, it is surely a small price to pay for moving towards a fairer process for all students.
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