Higher Education – but not as we know it?

Several years ago I participated in an interesting exercise in consultation involving a wide range of representatives associated with Higher Education. In a crowded room in Bloomsbury Square, HQ of Universities UK, Vice Chancellors, representatives from schools, the NUS President, UCAS, JMQ representing the exam boards, and others were tasked by the then Education Minister to transform applications to HE in the interests of social fairness.

The focus of debate was the concept of the “gathered field” or Post Qualifications Application (PQA) where students applied for places after receiving their examination results. This change to the system would set aside the perceived problem of predicted grades where there was a consensus that students from the maintained sector were more likely to have less positive predictions than students from the independent sector.

Everyone in the room wanted the system to work fairly. And everyone in the room had a position to defend in the great “gathered field” debate. Even the frustration of the government minister failed to shift the vested interests of selective v. recruiting universities, school term dates v. public examination timetable, and the genuine concern about the unintended consequences to the HE sector of PQA.

It was therefore with a somewhat jaded eye that I read a BBC report about the concerns of Professor Nick Foskett, Vice-Chancellor of Keele University, who fears that the current UCAS system is not fit for purpose:

“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.”


Interestingly, this was a point well made when the great and the good met around the table of Universities UK to chew over the arguments surrounding university admissions. Yet there was a strong sense then that the whole system should not go through a root and branch change because a small number of students attained better than expected. The idea of “trading up” quickly gained traction as it involved merely tweaking in Clearing – job done!

Professor Foskett however is perturbed by HE admissions. It is clear that the contours of the HE landscape have changed in recent years. Whilst student fee hikes have undoubtedly affected the attitudes of students to HE providers, HE is struggling to engage with the current government’s Widening Participation agenda. Diktats on student grades impacting negatively on last year’s admissions cycles left some selective universities in the bizarre position of not recruiting as they anticipated.

So the world of HE is beginning to experience the unintended consequences it feared. My concern is that the monetarisation of HE and tinkering with grade requirements at a time when the government has declared its intention to reverse grade inflation, is a toxic combination. The HE admissions process, carefully preserved after extensive debate under the previous government, is now challenged in ways which could not have been anticipated. The HE steering group was tasked with the issue of the “gathered field”. Professor Foskett is actually absolutely right to raise this issue again. Only this time the axis of debate has shifted and urgently needs proper joined up thinking to ensure the HE sector, the Jewel in the Crown of this country, maintains its status internationally and is ultimately sustainable and socially inclusive.

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