Disturbing Admissions

In a rare moment of wakefulness during yesterday’s Board of Studies, I listened to a report from our departmental admissions tutor about the state of play with applications for entry onto our physics courses next year. It was good news – applications are up more than 50% on last year – but this was tempered by the fact that our quota has gone down slightly, owing to the presence of a cap on student numbers. I’m not sure whether the increase, perhaps caused by students trying to get into university before the fee  goes up to £9K, is echoed around the country, but it seems likely that competition for places will be intense this year, with the almost certain result that many students  will be disappointed at being unable to get into their first choice university.

Coincidentally, I noticed a story on the BBC at the weekend suggesting that the whole timetable of university admissions might change. What the government is planning remains to be seen, but there’s no doubting the system is far from perfect and if we had the opportunity to design a process for university admissions from scratch, there is no way on Earth we would end up with a system like the current one.

As things stand, students apply for university places through UCAS before they have their final A-level results (which don’t come out until July). Most applications are in by January of the year of intended admission, in fact. The business of selecting candidates and making offers therefore makes use of “predicted grades” as supplied by teachers of the applicant.

According to the BBC news

..under the current system those from poorer backgrounds typically have their grades under-predicted.

I simply don’t know whether there is any information to back this up – in my (limited) experience most teachers systematically overestimate the grades of their pupils – but if it is the case then it would be a good reason for changing the timetable so that potential students could apply once they have their results in the bag. They can do that now, of course, but only if they take a gap-year, applying for admission the year after they have their A-levels.

But the inaccuracy of predicted A-level grades is not the only absurdity in the current system. Universities such as Cardiff, where I work, have to engage in enormous amounts of guesswork during the admissions process. Suppose a department has a quota of 100, defining the target number students to take in. They might reasonably get a minimum of 500 applications for these 100 places, depending on the popularity of university and course.

Each student is allowed to apply to 5 different institutions. If a decision is made to make an offer of a place, it would normally be conditional on particular A-level grades (e.g. AAB). At the end of the process the student is expected to pick a first choice (CF) and an insurance choice (CI) out of the offers they receive. They will be expected to go to their first choice if they get the required grades, to the insurance choice if they don’t make it into the first choice but get grades sufficient for the reserve. If they don’t make either grade they have to go into the clearing system and take pot luck among those universities that have places free after all the CFs and CIs have been settled.

Each university department has to decide how many offers to make. This will always be larger than the number of places, because not all applicants will make an offer their CF. We have to honour all offers made, but there are severe penalties if we under or over recruit. How many offers to make then? What fraction of students with an offer will put us first? What fraction of them will actually get the required grade?

The answers to these questions are not at all obvious, so the whole system runs on huge levels of uncertainty. I’m amazed that each year we manage to get anywhere close to the correct number, and we usually get very close indeed by the end.

It’s a very skilled job, being an admissions tutor, but there’s no question it would all be fairer on both applicants and departments to remove most of the guesswork.

But there is the rub. There are only two ways I can see of changing the timetable to allow what the government seems to want to do:

  1. Have the final A-level examinations earlier
  2. Start the university academic year later

The unavoidable consequence of the first option would be the removal of large quantities of material from the A-level syllabus so the exams could be held several months earlier, which would be a disaster in terms of preparing students for university.

The second option would mean starting the academic year in, say, January instead of October. This would in my opinion be preferable to 1, but would still be difficult because it would interfere with all the other things a university does as well as teaching, especially research.  The summer recess (July-September), wherein  much research is currently done, could be changed to an autumn one (October-December) but there would be a great deal of resistance, especially from the older establishments; I can’t see Oxbridge being willing to abandon its definitions of teaching term! And what would the students do between July and January?

The apply-after-A-level idea has been floated before, about a decade ago, but it sank without trace. I wonder if it will do any better this time around?


26 Responses to “Disturbing Admissions”

  1. Rhodri Evans Says:

    As you say Peter, the current system is far from perfect. When I applied to university (under what was then called UCCA), we too had a choice of 5 universities. I was in the rather bizzare position of having the LOWEST offer from my first choice University, Imperial. But, the system required me to keep an “insurance” offer, which didn’t make sense as the others were asking for higher grades than Imperial were asking me.

    I too think it would make sense for students to have their A-level grades before they apply to university, thus removing most of the guesswork from the process. Taking a whole year off between finishing A-levels and starting university is unrealistic for most students, as is shortening the A-level course to finish in early/mid spring of the upper 6th.

    In principle, I don’t see anything wrong in starting the University academic year in January. As you say, it would lead to the long non-teaching period being maybe Oct-Jan or Sept-Jan, but is that so difficult? I think the main problem is that this would take us out of step with other Northern Hemisphere countries, so we would have the problem of most conferences being held over the summer, when other countries would be taking their break from teaching.

    • telescoper Says:

      I think there would be a difficult transition, but as far as I can see it’s not impossible. Indeed, you could imagine a system whereby non-research universities teach Bachelor degrees in two calendar years, using the autumn recess period for teaching also, while research universities take time off teaching then.

      Problems include – shorter summer vacations for students and staff. Those academics who are used to vanishing for the summer to their homes in France would clearly object. Not that I have any sympathy.

      There’s also the issue of how much money universities make from hiring out rooms etc during the current summer vacation. This might decrease if these were only free in autumn rather than summer.

    • Rhodri Evans Says:

      Well, research universities could still have their long-ish break, it would just be shifted by a few months. The south of France may be less appealing in Oct-Dec, so academics will need to invest in properties in the Southern Hemisphere 🙂

      Universities do make some money from hiring out rooms and acccommodation over the summer to conferences. How important a revenue stream this is, I have no idea.

  2. telescoper Says:

    There’s also a huge amount of game-playing. For example, I know for a fact that one large University gives out high offers but also tells applicants verbally not to worry about them because if they don’t make the grade they’ll get in anyway. That’s just a cynical way of persuading students to put them first choice and to push themselves up the league tables by appearing to be very selective. This sort of thing explains why the A-level grades listed in the league tables as being required to get in are sometimes very different from the A-level grades most students there actually have.

    • Rhodri Evans Says:

      I only discovered when I got to Imperial that not everyone was given as low an offer as I was. I had my Pure & Applied maths already from the Lower 6th, and Imperial only asked me for a “C” in Physics to get in, even though I was doing Physics, Pure Maths, Applied Maths and Welsh in the upper 6th. Other people on my course had been asked for things like AAB or ABB (this is, of course, back in the day when it was not so easy to get an A 🙂 ) I don’t think this was game playing, as I suspect league tables didn’t exist back then (1982). But maybe I’m wrong.

    • telescoper Says:

      I think in the old days universities used to give low offers like this in order to signal to particular students that they really wanted them to come and they shouldn’t worry about A-levels. The lowest conditional offer possible used to be EE and even top places would make that offer if there were good reasons to accept the candidate.

      In your case, however, it is obviously much more likely that it was some form of administrative error.

    • Rhodri Evans Says:

      Yes, I’ve always assumed they meant to ask me for 5 As, and just got it wrong….

  3. Doesn’t the Open University already start its year in January? I haven’t noticed any problems with their academics attending summer conferences. It isn’t mandatory to have a long vacation between academic years – it can just as easily be in the middle of the year.
    Of course, not PC any more, but Oxford used to just sets its own exams which were taken after either 4 terms or 7 terms in the 6th form – marked with two sets of criteria for the two cohorts, and a firm decison (rejection or EE) made by January before the September start.

    • telescoper Says:

      I don’t know if the academic year for the the OU starts in january, but it is a different case because its students don’t attend, they study at home (for the most part) and most of them are part-time. All of that allows for more flexibility with timing.

      The OU however does run summer residential courses for students, usually at other university campuses around the country. These would all have to shift to the autumn too.

      I actually went to Cambridge via 7th term entry, i.e. after my A-levels were over. I found a job to tide me over between the end of the entrance exams and the start the following October.

    • Monica grady Says:

      The OU is different – among other things, it has two start dates for courses, one in February, the other in October. We don’t get a summer break from students, but then we don’t have to pitch up in a lecture theatre at 9 am on a Tuesday morning to lecture. We are phasing out residential schools – they are expensive to run, and aren’t as popular as they were – replacing them with shorter, weekend- based modules.

    • Rhodri Evans Says:

      Have the Oxbridge entrance exams now disappeared?

    • telescoper Says:

      The Oxbridge entrance exams went some time ago

    • Rhodri Evans Says:

      And what was the rationale for their disappearance?

    • telescoper Says:


    • The Oxbridge entrance exams went at least partly because independent schools, doing 7th term entry, were thought to be giving their students an unfair advantage. Also they were a lot of work 🙂

      However, something similar seems to be making a come back, with Cambridge University running its own ‘Pre-U’ exams as an alternative to A-levels – I’ve had one or two interviewees this year taking these.

      The reason for this comeback is that A-levels, as discussed below, are now very poor at identifying the very best students.

    • Rhodri Evans Says:

      Dave – I’m curious, did you also apply for Oxbridge? I would say in my class at Imperial (I think I was the year above you), about 50% were like me and had not applied to Oxbridge, and about 50% were Cambridge rejects.

    • You can add me to the Oxbridge rejects – I applied to Cambridge and did 7th term entry. I also did the Imperial scholarship exam and got one, which was some useful extra spending money in my first year 🙂

    • Rhodri Evans Says:

      I did the Imperial scholarship exam in my 4th term. I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. One of the questions was to describe Millikan’s oil drop experiment. I’d never heard of it (we certainly hadn’t covered it by then and now I can’t remember if we ever did at a-level). I made up some nonsense, which must have given the marker a good laugh. Needless to say, I didn’t get a scholarship, not even out of pity…..

  4. Your description of the admissions process leaves out an important element, at least for some institutions, and that is interviewing all the candidates deemed appropriate. This takes a huge amount of effort – at Imperial I spend typically 2 afternoons a week doing this for much of the autumn and winter terms.

    As has been noted by other commenters, this used not to be the case. I was one of those lucky people to be offered two Cs by Imperial. At that time the ‘interview’ consisted of about 6 candidates going into the Admissions Tutor’s office and all being told their offer was going to be two Cs, or similar.

    The reason that this has changed and that we now need a much more rigorous process is that A-levels are insufficient to select the best students. We now ask for predicted grades of A* A A as a minimum requirement, and AS grades already achieved that would indicate top grades in the A2 exams. But the range of ability covered by high ASs and top predicted A2s is vast. Some are fantastically good, others are, frankly, very poor. This means that even with actual A-level results we’d still have to interview all serious applicants. That’s a huge amount of work. Under the systems suggested above this would have to happen in the intersession break, meaning that a lot of research work would be interrupted.

    An alternative to this would be to make A-levels much better at selecting the best students. Back in the day, when Imperial was offering two Cs, A-levels were graded relatively, so that the top 10%, say, got As. In the mid 80s this was changed so that A-levels were graded on an ‘absolute’ scale, so everyone getting above a certain number of marks got an A. Oddly, the numbers of students getting As has been rising monotonically since then and, despite vociferous claims to the contrary by teachers and politicians, standards have definitely been eroded.

    • Rhodri Evans Says:

      Making A-levels harder (again) is NEVER going to happen. Can you imagine trying to explain why the percentage gaining A-grades (or A and A*) was less than for the last 25 years! There is no way the politicians would be able to explain it to the public. Although it may be the best thing to do in terms of being able to separate the very good from the good etc., it would be a very brave government that tried it.

      And, given that Michael Gove was talking on the radio today about returning to rote learning in English schools, I don’t hold out much hope for the secondary education of the English in the years to come. Thank God we can set school education policy separately in Wales.

    • The alternative to making A-levels harder again would be to abandon them and replace them with something else. The Cambridge Pre-Us show this already starting to happen. If something isn’t done about A-levels then additional/alternative qualifications will fill in the gap at the top.

      One other possibility might be to bring back the S-levels to provide an rigorous additional grade to an A at A-level. This effect was hoped for with the A*, but I don’t think that has worked – at least not as far as I’ve seen so far.

  5. Karen Masters Says:

    What’s wrong with marking the A-levels quicker, and deciding it all over the summer….? Or insisting on modular A-levels. In fact my A-levels (in the mid 90s) were so modular (meaning examined in parts throughout the course) that there could be very little uncertainty in what my final grade would be….

    Also how is leaving the students with 6 months off to do nothing between A-levels and the start of university term any better than a mandatory gap year? Rich kids would get more time to go on holiday. Some kids would sit around doing nothing. Some could volunteer, and some lucky few might even be able to find a job and make a bit of money!

  6. Rhodri Evans Says:

    Isn’t the modular nature of GCSEs and A-levels being phased out, with a return to more or all of the grade being determined by the final exam?

    Universities wouldn’t want to do the whole admissions process between finishing June/July A-levels and the October start of term. First it would cut into research time over the summer and secondly I doubt there would be sufficient time. But maybe I’m wrong.

  7. John Peacock Says:

    Strangely, I don’t see any discussion of England+Wales doing uni admissions as in Scotland. Here, a penultimate-year school student (lower-6th for you, 5th-year for us) does typically 5 “Highers”. If you do well, you can go to uni straight away based on them and miss the last year of school. Few do this, but nevertheless the students with good Highers will get unconditional offers for many courses. They spend their final year at school doing 2 or 3 “Advanced Highers”, but when they apply to Scottish unis, the offer often doesn’t specify any required AH grades.

    The good thing about this is that it removes the uncertainty for many students, and it means that conditional offers are focused more on those who didn’t do so well at Higher, in effect giving them a second chance to prove themselves. The only downside is that it removes the incentive for the best students to push themselves in their final school year, so they don’t get as much out of the AH work as they might.

    When A-levels turned into A1+A2 it seemed to me that England was moving in the Scottish direction, and I could never understand why there wasn’t also a move to base uni entrance on the A1 grades. Maybe this is moot if our lords and masters are now removing the A1+A2 split, but I’m tempted to wonder if the problem was that A1 was too easy. Certainly, people here would argue that the Advanced Higher is harder than the final standard of A level, and this seems to be a problem for Scots students applying to English unis: they ask for 3 A’s at AH, and don’t seem to realise that this is hard to get, much as 3 A-levels of this standard would once have been considered a rare achievement. Anyway, the 9k fees will remove that issue…

    So in summary, why isn’t anyone down there suggesting basing entrance on a set of reasonably tough exams taken at the end of the penultimate school year, with the final exams as a second chance for a minority?

  8. […] In fact I’d go as far as to say that the entire system of University admissions in the United Kingdom needs to be overhauled. As I said in a post almost a decade ago: […]

  9. […] In fact I’d go as far as to say that the entire system of University admissions in the United Kingdom needs to be overhauled. As I said in a post over a decade ago: […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: