Opinion: Moving university applications post A-level results will be a colossal step forward for Cambridge admissions

It’s time to move on from predicted grades

Following the government’s original decision to award GCSE and A-level results through a computer algorithm, calls for change to the way that exams and admissions are run have never been louder.

How could the process be changed?

In early November 2020, the government’s announcement of a review of the university admissions system, and a potential move to a post-A-level application process was met with widespread acceptance. The current system stands in contrast to those used across the world, and there are concerns it disadvantages higher achieving students from struggling schools.

The idea of moving university admissions to after exams is still very much in its infancy, and the government is yet to confirm how this change would be implemented. At this stage, there are several theories on how it could work. One involves no alteration to the current exam timeline, but rather changes the start of university arrivals to January, thereby allowing time to process applications. Another would preserve the current start date for unis but would involve a very brief five week period for applications. It is obvious that, whichever route is taken, there will be challenges to overcome. So, what are we really gaining here? 

Tackling unreliable predicted grades 

According to last year’s UCAS End of Cycle report, only one in five 18 year olds accepted into university met or exceeded their predicted grades. Even more concerning is that four in 10 accepted applicants missed their predictions by three or more grades. This follows a general trend of predicted grades becoming increasingly unreliable, especially since the rollout of new A-levels (where a large proportion of subjects have no coursework) and the phasing out of AS-levels. Away from the general chaos of these numbers, Cambridge finds itself in a relatively fortunate position. Students who go on to achieve A*AA or higher from their best three A-levels (the majority of applicants/offer holders at Cambridge) are on average within 0.6 grades of their predicted grades. Despite this, the problems continue.

Diversity in the admissions process 

For a long time, a crucial focus of improving access and diversity at Cambridge has been encouraging those from underrepresented backgrounds to apply to the university, a major reason for this being the problem of under-predicted grades. According to the same UCAS end of cycle report, for every four or so students who achieved A*AA or A*A*A last year (the two most common offer grades for Cambridge courses), one of them had exceeded their UCAS predicted grades, with many studies suggesting that these students are more likely to be those from underrepresented backgrounds. This is compared to a national average of one in 12 students being over predicted, highlighting the specific challenges that the Cambridge admissions system faces. A change in the system could boost efforts to improve diversity at Cambridge, encouraging those who would have previously been limited by inaccurate (and potentially biased) predicted grades to apply. An education system which wants to be meritocratic shouldn’t base university admissions on the subjective, and occasionally biased, opinions of individual teachers. This is one of the reasons why Britain is practically alone in using a predicted-grades-and-conditional-offers system: it is inherently flawed.

Adding contextual considerations 

It might be argued that the new system may shift the focus of admissions more towards A-level performance, limiting the opportunity for leniency shown to exceptional students who perform well in admissions assessments and interviews but may marginally miss their A-level grades. Although grades are a crucial part of the application process, putting more emphasis on them may be a mistake, especially considering the disparities in school performance. However, contextual considerations could go some distance in levelling the playing field here; on balance, the pros emphatically outweigh the cons. Professor Graham Virgo, the senior pro-vice chancellor at Cambridge, suggested that the university shares a similar sentiment saying: “The University of Cambridge welcomes the government’s decision to consult on reforming the way students apply to university, particularly through the adoption of a post-qualification admissions system.” 

Away from the stabilising consistency it will bring to the wider university application system, the admissions system at Cambridge will no doubt see great benefit from this proposed change. Despite indications that, on average, predicted grades are relatively reliable at the top end, we saw this summer how a system whose defenders claim it to be accurate most of the time can still leave space for catastrophic individual injustices. Gavin Williamson and co. fuelled a vehicle of averages, only to be met with a wall of the dissatisfied students who (quite rightly) argued that they were worth more than the sum of their statistical profiles.

From a government whose summer theatrics showed real indifference to the educational outcomes of those from BAME and underprivileged backgrounds, this is the right move. It is a shame it has taken a national scandal to force it.

Feature Image Credit: Philip Halling via Geograph (Creative Commons license)