Disturbing Admissions

So, as the second day of Repeat Examinations at Maynooth University gets under way, students in the United Kingdom are receiving their A-level results. I’ve already heard a number of stories from friends and colleagues flabbergasted by the way some marks have been treated, so it all looks likely to be quite a mess. I have great sympathy for the students, for whom this has been an extraordinarily difficult year, and I hope the A-level fiasco doesn’t affect too many too badly.

My experience of over 30 years teaching in UK universities has convinced me that A-levels are not a very good preparation for higher education anyway and the obsession with them is rather unhealthy. Some of the best students I’ve ever had the pleasure of teaching came to University with poor A-level grades (for a variety of reasons).

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:

…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.

Of course I longer work in the UK so there’s no longer a “we”, but the system in Ireland is not that much different, with the Leaving Certificate playing the role of A-levels for the vast majority of students.

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

In my (limited) experience most teachers systematically overestimate the grades of their pupils, which is presumably why so many of this year’s A-level results are being downgraded, but there are lots of unconscious biases at play here and I accept that some teachers may be unduly pessimistic about their students likely performance.

But the inaccuracy of predicted A-level grades is not the only absurdity in the current system. Universities 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. They have to honour all offers made, but there may be penalties if they under or over recruit. How many offers to make then? What fraction of students with an offer will put you 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 any institution manages 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 by which I mean allowing students to apply to University after they have got their results. But there is the rub. There are two ways I can see of changing the timetable to allow this:

  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 September. 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 (September-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?

Either of these options would cause enormous disruption in the short-term, which is presumably why they have never been implemented. However, this year everything is disrupted anyway so there’s an opportunity to redesign the whole process. Delaying the start of the academic year until January 2021 would make a great deal of sense this year in particularly, though I think it’s a bit late to be doing it now.

I don’t really imagine the Government is thinking of doing this but here are some suggestions of elements of a new admissions system:

  • Students to apply after receiving A-level* grades (i.e. implement 1 or, preferably, 2 above)
  • All university applications to be anonymous to prevent discrimination.
  • The identity of the applicant’s school to be withheld to prevent undue influence.
  • Teachers to play no part in the process.

*I don’t think A-levels are fit for purpose so here I mean grades of whatever examination replaces them.

21 Responses to “Disturbing Admissions”

  1. Colin Rosenthal Says:

    It strikes me that the main reason we don’t see this problem to the same extent here in Denmark is simply that the overwhelming majority of students take a gap year after High School, so they already know their grades when they apply for University.

  2. I agree the system is madness. But the cost to students of application to five universities is very low compared to other countries, and we need to preserve that.

  3. Phil Uttley Says:

    How about only starting the 1st year in January, with the later years still coming back in October? You would either lose a few months teaching, or could get the time back with shorter holidays, but the overall structure of the academic year would not change too much. Since the same amount of teaching is done in 3 or 4 year chunks there would be no overall reduction in research time, you would just need to balance the workload out a bit between staff teaching 1st years and those teaching later years who would still start teaching in October.

    Here in NL we have a completely different admissions system, just getting a graduation diploma from the academic high-schools guarantees admission to a University degree programme according to specialisms taken at school (streaming between vocational/professional/academic schools happens at secondary level, with transfer between streams also possible). Grades don’t come into it and quotas on courses are mostly non-existent except for a few heavily oversubscribed courses like medicine, where a lottery system is applied. So there is no scramble for places or competition between universities for students. This seems to work here because the Universities are more or less considered to be equivalent in quality, so most students choose according to their interests and where they want to live (often staying closer to home, even in a small country like the Netherlands). University funding is also relatively stable and not so dependent on student numbers.

    • telescoper Says:

      That has been suggested for Ireland this year, but it needn’t be January necessarily – could be half-term or thereabouts.

      • Phil Uttley Says:

        Yes, it just needs to be enough time to get the final grades and run the admission process on that basis (with the admission process being faster/smoother since grades are already known).

  4. Re correlation between A levels and college career, there appears to be quite a strong correlation between low Leaving Cert grades and failure rates in first-year college. Yet our college persists with allowing students with very low grades onto engineering and science courses , with predictable results.

    • telescoper Says:

      I find the key thing is Maths….

      Just for Physics and In terms of A-levels I think students who have good Maths and/or Further Maths will do well, whereas the Physics A-level result doesn’t really matter.

  5. Modular A-levels address the fundamental problem of uncertainty in A-level results quite well I think. On my A-level results day, I knew that I had an A in Physics and Chemistry unless the final modules were absolutely catastrophic. The key problem is a system that formally obtains zero information about student ability until a single point failure exam in the second year of A-levels. Fiddling with university admissions is just ignoring the real issue, to my mind.

  6. jonivar skullerud Says:

    Surely, the solution to the problem of having results so late is to have a sensible school term instead of the ludicrous spectacle of sitting your exams in the middle of summer and then have “summer” holidays at the height of autumn?
    If the exams (and the end of the school term) was in may like it is in sensible countries the results would be available in early july.

    • telescoper Says:

      This argument would make sense were there any discernible difference between summer and autumn weather.

      • jonivar skullerud Says:

        You might want to check the actual climate data for England. July is both the warmest and the driest month of the year.

        I will leave it to others to work out whether there is likely to be more sunshine around summer solstice or around autumn equinox.

      • telescoper Says:

        It wasn’t meant to be a serious comment!
        Anyway, if I recall correctly, A-level exams in the UK take place in May and June and are all over before the Solstice. It’s probably changed since my day though.

      • Phil Uttley Says:

        Actually I don’t think the Earth’s axial tilt changes that fast.

        I’ll get my coat.

      • telescoper Says:

        Have you never heard of the Precession of the A-levels?

  7. It does seem strange that the UK school year runs so late, with the summer holiday is in August. That may work for London, but in the north this is pretty much the end of summer. July would work much better. Of course there are historical reasons. If you move the entire school year back one month, then A level results will be available in July and universities can run a much easier admissions system. Perhaps we can convince the brexit government that august school holidays are a french invention?

  8. Just to note that the quota system has been gone in the UK for some years now. There are of course still effectively (financial) penalties for under-recruiting. There are none for over-recruiting other than a requirement to find some way of teaching the extra students. This has changed the picture massively, at least in Physics…

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