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article imageOp-Ed: Is the Universities & Colleges Admissions Service a fair system? Special

By Sean Braidy     Oct 17, 2011 in World
Controlling university admissions since 1993, the UCAS system guides and determines the future of all aspiring students nationwide every year. But just how fairly does it influence the future of today's youth?
With the first cohort of £9000 fee payers applying for 2012, the decisions based on this structure will have more of an impact on the financial future of Britain’s youth than ever before. As the deadline for those pursuing medicine, dentistry or Oxbridge has just passed, it is a good time to analyse just how effective and fair this system really is.
Unique in its format, the UCAS system (as far as my research could tell) is the only application process worldwide which bases its judgements on predicted grades. Subject teachers estimate what their students will achieve overall at the beginning of Year 13, halfway through their 2-year A-Level courses. Such guesswork provides the main basis for admissions tutors to deem a student’s academic ability; but just how are these prophetic decisions made?
“AS grades from Year 12 account for about 50% of the prediction,” stated one 6th form tutor from Hertfordshire I spoke to, with student figures from her school supporting this claim. Exactly 50% of AS History students were granted predicted grades equal to their AS achievements, whilst 9 out of 17 taking Sociology had predicted grades either equivalent or one higher to their Year 12 results. So what is the other half of the prediction based on?
“Students protesting can be a major factor towards what grade we predict them”, another tutor told me. She commented on one occasion in which a student had refused to leave the room until she had granted him the B grade he needed for his desired course. Letters had even been sent home to parents multiple times, outlining how the school was agreeing to predict the grade the student needed but were not willing to claim responsibility if he/she did not achieve it the following August. “Teachers are under a lot of pressure to put up predicted grades by students and parents, especially now the accepted boundaries at universities are so high.” Such would explain why 7 out of 17 Sociology students had predictions at least two grades higher than those they had achieved the year before, one student being granted an A despite only achieving an E at AS Level. Its clear that a lot of faith is often placed upon a student’s work rate improving dramatically in the following year.
Not that all students live up to such expectations. 60% of those taking History got lower results at A2 than their tutors had predicted, a stark contrast considering 50% of the predicted grades were higher than their AS results. At the other end of the spectrum, 5 out of 17 Sociology students achieved grades beyond those of their predictions; not that it mattered when their offers had already been based on the lower grades their choice universities had received a year earlier.
Anyone reading these figures can plainly see that basing the system on guesswork is unfair towards students one way or another. Whilst persuasion and protest have the power to affect who gets what offers - and whilst those who strive harder are sometimes denied greater opportunities as their over-achievements in Year 13 go un-rewarded - the system cannot ever claim to be just and fair to those whose future it judges. So what are the alternatives?
If possible, then basing the applications on final rather than predicted grades would clearly be the fairest way to assess student achievements. As such, how’s this for a reformation; end A2 courses a month early and hire more examiners to finish the marking quicker; produce the results by July and send off applications within a week, by which point students will have had over a year to finalise their five choices; offers, interviews and final choices carried out throughout August and early September; and the university term moved back a month to start early October. Fairer, no doubt; but is it feasible?
In Spain it is. In fact, they not only manage it, but manage far more as well. The Spanish ‘Bachillerato’ system is the equivalent to British A-Levels, and involves students taking 9 subjects in their second year. Not only this, but they must perform 6-7 university entrance exams when applying; meaning 16 different exams must be marked for every student. Compared to merely 3 (sometimes even 2 after January exams) summer exams and a personal statement, it does make you question how we are unable to complete our procedure in the same confined time as Spain despite having far less to administrate. Just why are we so slow?
I contacted the media relations office of a top-rated British university, asking how many applications they receive yearly. They replied with around 30,000. I asked how many admissions staff they hired to sort through them. They replied with 12-16 members of staff, with input from course selectors during offer and confirmation times. 16 members, 30,000 applicants; numerically, that works out at roughly 2000 applications each staff member has to sort through across the majority of the year. No wonder we work at snail pace compared to the rest of Europe.
So more admissions staff would need to be hired, undoubtedly, to make this system work. But what about the interviews, the last chance for some to convince possible future tutors that they are worthy of the course; could they be completed nationwide within the space of a fortnight?
“Optimistic” was how one university professor I spoke to described this, commenting on how his department interviews 150 students on average every year and how this was a small number compared to other courses he knew of. He followed on by outlining how tutors have less time for interviews during the summer, as it is the time of year that they try to focus on personal research which has become harder to perform throughout semesters due to the massive rise in student/staff ratios over the past 15 years. “Some of us even want to go on holidays, something not possible during term time” he also quoted. Fair enough.
Interviews, as such, may require a sufficient amount of time to complete. Yet this shouldn’t be an issue if the university semesters could begin a month later, finishing a month later in the following summer; right?
Wrong, or at least unwanted in the eyes of those who run the courses. At least not since semesterisation - the process of going from three 10-week to two 15-week terms within the school year – occurred, the same professor told me.
“A lot of universities have succumbed to the fashion of semesterisation, meaning that a 15 week course has to be fitted in before Christmas.” Why not revert back to the previous system then? “The changeover process involved a lot of administrative and academic effort. Whole courses had to be rewritten to accommodate for about 8 weeks teaching as opposed to 13. Most of the teaching staff wish we had never done it, and no one wants to go through the reverse process.”
Is this reformed system possible at all then? “I’m not saying that it can’t be done – I’m saying that it wont be done. The tutors don’t want the trouble all over again and, after the uproar of semesterisation, it seems highly unlikely that any government would seriously consider it.” Administration, therefore, appears to be the primary reason why the current system exists unchallenged today.
Yet bureaucracy cannot stand forever in the way of progress; as long as hard-working students continue to be disadvantaged by an unjust process which is likely to determine the future course of their lives, the system cannot ensue. Predicted grades are not the way forward; so forget the guesswork and get started on the paperwork, so we can change to a system which rewards students fairly for the achievements they have earned.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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