UK university admissions: which way forward?

24 November 2015

The UK university admissions system needs to be reconfigured in the wake of the ‘decoupling’ of AS Level from A Level, a Cambridge admissions tutor has told a seminar held by the Cambridge Assessment Network. 

Richard Partington, Senior Tutor of Churchill College, University of Cambridge, has been involved in admissions for 18 years. In his talk, Is the UK HE admissions system fit for purpose? he argued for a new approach that would have A Level results at its heart. 

Up until this year, pupils sat AS Levels in the first year of sixth form and A2s in the second, with the scores combined to form a final grade. But new AS Levels have been ‘decoupled’, making them standalone qualifications. Universities including Cambridge have argued the move deprives them of a key indicator of applicants’ potential. But, acknowledging that it looked unlikely that decoupling would be reversed, Mr Partington suggested focusing on A Level results, which he said research had consistently shown were a very good indicator of potential.

"The A Level identifies potential consistently and well," Mr Partington said. 

"It was created in 1951 as a university entrance exam, it's always been a university entrance exam. That's its job - in a sense we should focus on the thing that does this best, and we know A Level does."

He said the A Level provided and measured some of the key things needed for success at university: core knowledge, technical skills, ‘stickability’, focus, calmness, the ability to prioritise, intelligence, imagination, creativity and logic. It also had a further advantage – it created no further obstacles to applicants. 

"Students are going to do A Levels anyway, you place them at the heart of admissions, you are making it as easy as you can in terms of additional barriers to entry," he said. 

But he said that, for a new A Level-focused approach to work, a number of changes needed to be made. Firstly, faith in the soundness of A Level marking needed to be re-established. Recent criticisms of marking had at times "verged on the hysterical", he said, when it was "undoubtedly the case that A Level marking remains very reliable in most subjects almost all of the time". 

Secondly, A Level grades ideally needed to be more granular, he said, giving admissions tutors "more grades to play with". University applicants and their teachers also needed more guidance on what to put in UCAS personal statements and references. And the system overall needed to be made much more transparent, he argued, with universities required publicly to outline and justify the basis upon which admissions decisions were made. 

He concluded: "This has got to be - in the interests of fair admissions, widening participation, and good outcomes at university - a system that bases its decisions on validity and at the present time the best thing that’s out there is A Level."

You can watch Mr Partington's talk above and share your views in the comments section below or tweet using #HEcam. His slides are also available here.

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