THE BLOG
07/10/2013 08:41 BST | Updated 07/12/2013 05:12 GMT

Is the University Application Process Out of Date?

The vice-chancellor of Keele University, Professor Nick Foskett, has made fresh calls for a reformed university application process in the UK, claiming the current system is "out-dated".

This is not the first time the current applications process has been criticised, and yet it remains in place. Is he right to demand change?

Why the process might be out of date

Foskett is concerned that there is too much uncertainty in the system as it stands. Predicted grades, which are only 51.7% accurate according to one government study, make a questionable foundation for the application process. The system of conditional offers means that students only know for certain where they will be studying around a month before they have to be there.

If students perform worse than expected, they have to go through clearing, where they may not get a university place at all, or end up on a course they never wanted to be on. Conversely, if they do better they can trade up to a better course, but only if places are available - potentially compromising on what they study. Originally developed informally, clearing is now a major part of the application process, with 145,730 students going through it this year alone.

There is also evidence that the system is unfair on poorer students. Research by Durham University found that state school pupils "need to be better qualified than their private school counterparts on average by as much as two A-level grades before they are likely to apply to Russell Group universities...And when [they] do apply...they seem to need to be better qualified by as much as one A-level grade before they are as likely to receive offers of admission."

Although the researchers would not be drawn into speculation as to the causes of disparity, Education Secretary Michael Gove put it down to independent schools having the knowledge and connections to "play the system while state school students lose out".

Post qualification application process

This is not the first time the university application process has been up for reform. The last government-backed UCAS consultation took place in 2011, which built on a previous consultation in 2004.

The consultation, backed by the NUS, proposed moving to a post-qualification-application (PQA) process where students only apply after receiving their A-level grades, removing uncertainty from the process. This is the same process that Foskett is now calling for.

Moving to a PQA process would spell an end to clearing. As Foskett says, students could still research and visit universities in the months leading up to application, but leave the final decision until they were certain of their grades - and therefore also knew what courses they could realistically get onto.

Students would also be able to make a more mature decision, applying at the age of 18 rather than 17 or even 16.

Why has PQA never been implemented before?

Despite a PQA process enjoying widespread support, the 2011 consultation concluded that it would be too difficult to implement in practical terms.

The Russell Group was concerned that a PQA system would mean universities lacked the time to conduct "fair, thorough and holistic assessments of candidates". The group was worried that "The main losers would be prospective students and in particular those from disadvantaged backgrounds who benefit from special access schemes, summer schools and other outreach activity."

Teachers and examiners were also opposed to the plan on timeframe grounds. Teachers due to exams having to be brought forward - and therefore cutting down on teaching time in the second A-level year - and examiners for putting pressure on marking, as time "would be tight".

Overwhelming feeling seemed to be that although a post-qualification system would be fairer in principle, the time pressures it would introduce into the system negate any gains.

Modified clearing

Having abandoned the introduction of a PQA process, UCAS recognised that clearing in particular needs reform. They suggested that from 2014, a 'cooling off' period of 48 hours would be introduced so students needn't make snap decisions about what to do with unexpected grades.

The government has since introduced changes to the clearing system by removing the numbers cap on universities taking students who achieved AAB and above in 2012 and ABB and above in 2013. This gives greater flexibility for students who attain better grades than expected, although still leaves under-performing students with a restricted choice.

Clearly work still needs to be done. Where and what students study will affect the rest of their lives. With university fees costing an average of £43,500, parents have to save more than £100 per month for 20 years to cover the cost of their child's education. In this light, the current level of uncertainty - particularly in clearing - is plainly too much.

The practical problems of implementing a PQA process may well be insurmountable as the last consultation concluded, but Foskett cannot be ignored when he says that "we're working with a model that is more than 50 years old and was created to accommodate a handful of universities, but now processes tens of thousands of student applications each year".