A-level Again

So once again it’s the day that students in United Kingdom are receiving their A-level results. It seems the number of top grades is down this year but as always my advice to students who got disappointing results is

There’s always the clearing system and there’s every chance you can find a place somewhere good. If you’re reading this blog you might be interested in Physics and/or Astronomy so I’ll just mention that both Cardiff and Sussex have places in clearing and both are excellent choices.

At least you’ve got your results; students here in Ireland will have to wait until September 2nd to get theirs!

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 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 over 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, but they do tend to get very close indeed by the end. Usually.

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.

I don’t really imagine the Government is will do any of 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.

4 Responses to “A-level Again”

  1. The situation in the UK has changed slightly in recent years because there are no longer any caps on recruitment, which means a ‘penalty’ for over-recruiting comes in the form of having too many students to teach properly — something a lot of big institutions have been prepared to put up with in recent years, it seems. So the calculation becomes mostly about where you set your tariff to try to get the students to come to you rather than somewhere else in the first place, and it’s always best to over-recruit if you can. Anecdotally, but on the basis of many anecdotes from many other HoDs, there is a nasty divide in Physics and Astronomy at the moment between institutions that are swamped with students and those that are finding it hard to make ends meet.

    Re January start, this is where we (again in the UK) need to end up if anyone had the courage to make it happen. One thing that has shifted in recent years is that international PGT has become a lot more important, and many of those students really like a January start, so many institutions will be running an entry then anyway (as we are).

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, the caps on recruitment and associated financial penalties went a while ago (while I was at Sussex), so I should probably have used “target” instead of “quota”, but there are still practical limits imposed by, e.g. first-year lab capacity. I think Departments still have target numbers so they don’t bite off more than they can chew.

      It seems that some HEIs have increased their intake dramatically in Physics – Manchester for example – and this has left other places struggling because the pool of applicants is relatively small and not growing significantly. Just a few years ago, new Physics Departments were opening up but now I can see some closing down because although they have excellence in research and teaching they don’t have the financial bedrock provided by student numbers.

      It’s the same sort of process by which W.H. Smith took over the high street and there are so few independent bookshops nowadays.

  2. Impractical, but I like the idea of keeping teaching terms the same, and introducing a compulsory “gap-year”. Students would then have their grades before applying, and gain some experience of work and life. They should also then have a much better idea why they are at university and what they want from their degree.

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