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Why university applications should be based on actual achievement

Students from deprived backgrounds are less likely than their more affluent peers to attend university; those who do progress to higher education are less likely to attend a prestigious university.

Students looking at papers

24 January 2020

These patterns are seen in many countries, but the problem is exacerbated in the UK by the unusual practice of applying to university on the basis of predicted exam results, before gaining the necessary qualifications. Teachers have a poor record of predicting A levels; recent research from the UCL Institute of Education (IOE) found that they are accurate just 16 per cent of the time

This research has added to the growing recognition that access to university could be widened if universities knew applicants’ actual results when they apply, an approach called Post-Qualification Application. Such a system could increase the chance of students entering a course matching their ability, especially students from less affluent backgrounds. 

Background and findings

In the UK, school leavers’ applications for a university place are made a year or more before they start higher education. They are based primarily on teachers’ predictions of the student’s expected results in A levels or other entrance qualifications, alongside a personal statement and earlier exam results such as GCSEs.

IOE research by Dr Gill Wyness has shown the lack of robustness in this system – finding that teachers’ grade predictions are accurate only about 16 per cent of the time.

This research used specially commissioned bespoke data from the University and College Admissions Service on predicted and actual grades (N=858,720 applications), and econometric techniques to look at the enrolment patterns of students from different groups.

The analysis showed that in the majority of cases teachers over-predict students’ grades.

It also showed that this varied dramatically according to the student’s socio-economic (SES) background: teachers tend to underestimate the possible performance of high achieving students from less affluent backgrounds compared with high achievers from more prosperous families, whose predictions tended to be more accurate.

The unintended effect may be that high attaining students from lower-income families are more likely than others to apply for less prestigious courses than their eventual exam results would permit them to enter, a phenomenon termed ‘undermatch.’

Given the well-documented returns to high status universities and subjects this has important implications for the future earnings of students from low income backgrounds, and hence for equity and social mobility.

Policy recommendations

The recommendations that flow from this research are that university applications should be made when the results of entrance exams are known, to remove teacher grade predictions as a factor in applications.

This would involve significant changes to school-year scheduling, examinations timing and university admissions processes.  

To date, the scale of such change has been a source of resistance to reform.  The empirical evidence provided by Wyness has shown the lack of robustness and inequities in the reliance on predicted grades, as well as the scale of the problem.  This is helping to make a much stronger case for change.  

In the 2019 UK general election, it underlay the Mobility Manifesto produced by the Sutton Trust, the leading education think tank. Of the two major parties, the Conservative manifesto promised to “improve the application and offer system for undergraduate students,” while Labour, citing Wyness’s findings, said it would “introduce post-qualification admissions in higher education.”

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