Knowns and unknowns - Is the HE admissions systems fit for purpose?

Knowns and unknowns - Is the HE admissions system fit for purpose?

Sally Brown looks at the anomalies the current HE admissions system throws up and explains what OCR are doing to level the playing field.

At this time of year there are some knowns - leaves will turn orange, pumpkins will be hollowed out and fireworks will generate oohs and ahhhs. Universities will open their doors to ever-discerning students and personal statements will be written to demonstrate self-worth and passion for a subject.

But it seems there are many unknowns when it comes to university admissions.

For one student, a prediction of three A grades based on sound AS performance could mean a choice of five university offers. For another student it may mean only one and for some, achievement at the end of year 13 is not required to secure a place due to an unconditional offer. For some, it can be the time when they find out choices they made at age 16 don't quite fit. A student who knew that they wanted to study engineering and took appropriate vocational qualifications to support their entry, finds that their qualifications are not as highly thought of by some Higher Education (HE) institutions and they would have been better advised to study maths and physics A Levels. For others, the study of psychology, law or economics is not deemed as relevant as subjects like maths, despite wanting to pursue those subjects at degree level.

It is not surprising that admission to HE is not straight forward. It is highly competitive and we hear that differentiating between students is very difficult. As a result, entry grade requirements have risen and other hurdles introduced, such as admissions tests.

Yet over the past two years we and other awarding organisations have been working hard to ensure we produce new academic and vocational level 3 qualifications for England that are fit for entry to HE. They have been designed with entry to HE as their primary purpose - a principle established by the former Secretary of State for education, Michael Gove, and supported by the new incumbent. We actively engage with higher education and OCR has worked with over 300 academics to seek input into development, design and support for the new qualifications. And for some qualifications, a specific committee, ALCAB, the A level content advisory board whose membership was drawn almost exclusively from higher education academics was established. Students began studying the first tranche of these new qualifications from September and by 2018 all A Level qualifications and applied general vocational qualifications will have been built for this primary purpose.

With this in mind, is it time for a review of entry for admission into university; for all stakeholders involved in the progression of students into HE to sit down and have that discussion? Should pass grades in these new qualifications be sufficient for successful entry to higher education? Is only the top grade sufficient? Or could all of us in the system be faced with a challenge that in fact these qualifications do not do ‘what they say on the tin’.

A starting point for this discussion will be had at a Cambridge Assessment Network seminar ‘Is the HE admissions system in the UK fit for purpose?’ to be held in Cambridge on 18 November. Register here.

Sally Brown
Head of Policy (Higher Education), OCR 

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