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University applicationsBy Kate Hilpern

The current university application system isn’t working, claim growing numbers of educational professionals. It’s high time, they say, that we caught up with the rest of the world.

The University and College Union (UCU) is among those who believe students should be able to apply to university on the basis of their actual, not predicted, exam results. It would make things much simpler and fairer for everyone, they say.

Britain is the only nation that offers university places on the basis of predicted grades and research shows that only 16 per cent of schools’ grade predictions turn out to be correct.

Moreover, says UCU, it increasingly encourages universities to make students unconditional offers. Last year’s surge in unconditional offers caused a particularly big uproar. Unconditional offers, they said, ‘have made a mockery of exams and led to inflated grade predictions, while putting students under enormous pressure to make a snap decision about their future’.

Even universities minister, Sam Gyimah, agrees applications to university should be made post-A level results. And the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) is among other organisations backing the call for change, describing the current system as, ‘out of date and a historical quirk which is not mirrored in other countries and creates unnecessary problems.’

Some educationalists even believe the growing number of unconditional offers made to students before taking their A levels can lower standards because students become demotivated and can under-perform on exam day, which disadvantages them if prospective future employers take their A level grades into account.

It’s not as if these arguments are new. Labour tried to change the system back in 2006, with UCAS proposing changes again in 2011. Both were rejected, with considerable opposition from universities, which voiced concerns about the impact of abridged assessment period on widening access. Nor was the idea of a shorter summer term to enable earlier exams welcomed by schools and colleges. But would there be less opposition today, what with the effects of marketisation on admissions and the rise in unconditional offer making which, as universities themselves increasingly argue, ‘cheapens our product’?

However, Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, has argued that post-qualification application to university could make young people even more stressed around A level time – the danger being that youngsters would feel pressured to do even better in their exams, now said to be harder anyway, thanks to recent reforms.

He – and others - claim that at least the current system of predicting grades encourages universities to consider a range of factors when deciding whom to admit, not just A level grades.

So, is there a third way? Tim Blackman, vice-chancellor of Middlesex University, believes in a system of ‘comprehensive universities,’ whereby students would attend their local institution just as they do with comprehensive schools, with minimum entry standards.

If there’s one thing everyone agrees on, it is that times are changing and so must the university system, particularly with students and their families now paying bigger bucks for their university education than ever before.

Do you think the current system works? If not, what changes would you propose? Share your thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, using the hashtag #goodschoolsguide


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