University Admissions – better ways to deliver good and bad news

Ed Elliott

Headmaster, The Perse School

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I wouldn’t want to be a university admissions tutor.  At selective universities the demand for places is outstripping the supply as a growth in the teenage population and grade inflation mean there are more 18 year olds with the grades needed to access top universities than ever before.  How can admissions tutors accurately choose between all of these well qualified applicants, especially when their qualifications were not subject to thorough national standardisation?  Teacher Assessed Grades (TAGs) in 2021 and Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs) in 2020 were issued under very challenging circumstances.  Everybody involved in the grading process did their reasonable best, but because the grades were not subject to a thorough national standardisation process by the Exam Boards, grading standards inevitably differ between centres.  An A grade in one centre could well have been an A* in another.

Even more significant than the differences in grading students in 2020 and 2021, is the differential impact of the pandemic on individual centres and students.  When schools closed on the 20th March 2020 for face to face teaching some moved quickly to establish effective remote teaching within a matter of days.  The learning loss for students in these centres was limited.  Other schools took longer to create an effective remote teaching provision, and in these centres the learning loss was more significant.  Learning loss does not just vary between centres but within them too; for example students with excellent IT hardware, digital skills and internet connectivity were much less likely to experience significant learning loss than students who lacked them.

There are always inequalities between schools and students that admissions tutors need to consider in making fair decisions.  But these inequalities are greater than ever this year, whilst the data that admissions tutors have to guide them, actual and predicted grades, are less reliable because of the lack of rigorous national standardisation for actual grades and uncertainty about the 2022 grading standard (somewhere between 2021 and 2019) for predicted grades.

Given the on-going pandemic I understand why many universities are only offering remote interviews, but I do worry that technological glitches could cost excellent candidates well deserved university places.  It must also be remembered that university selection is a two-way process, and historically students have really valued spending some interview time in universities to gauge whether the institution is right for the student.

I have a huge respect for university admissions tutors.  They work long hours, usually on top of other duties and often at the end of gruelling terms, to run fair admissions systems that select the students most appropriate for courses.  But this year the odds are stacked against them, and inevitably even with lots of care and attention some “mistakes” will be made.  Really strong candidates will be rejected, and students and their teachers will be left wondering what went “wrong”?  I use inverted commas because for students and teachers what is a “mistake” or “wrong” is often for admissions tutors just a case of selecting a different candidate from the large pool that all met the entry requirements and have the potential to excel on a degree course.

The laws of supply and demand mean that more good students will be unsuccessful in their applications to top universities this year.  The challenges of the 2021-22 admission cycle also mean the chances of ‘rogue’ outcomes have increased.  The net effect will be an increased volume of ‘bad news’ for students and schools to receive, and this bad news will be delivered at a time when many students are still struggling with the negative wellbeing effects of lockdowns and disrupted learning.  Increased amounts of disappointment at a time when students have less resilience is a recipe for pastoral problems.

Universities often communicate admissions decisions to students during the working/school day.  This means that students receive significantly good or bad university news in or between lessons and when surrounded by peers who may have received the same or different good or bad university news.  Schools do not have prior warning of university decisions so cannot be on standby to provide support or congratulations to affected students.  This unregulated approach to communicating university decisions can make bad news worse as students have to come to terms with a significant disappointment without the time to process it and the support of their parents, carers and teachers.  Even self-confident and resilient teenagers find a university “rejection” unsettling, but for more vulnerable students the failure to achieve a much hoped for university place can be a significant setback.

So I’m asking universities to do two things to help students and schools manage good/bad admissions news.  Firstly, please could universities follow the example of exam boards and give schools 24 hours’ notice of students’ admissions outcomes so that teachers can be on hand to support students?  This method of pre-release works well for A’level and GCSE results and allows schools to help individuals and manage an emotionally charged situation well.  (For GDPR reasons it would require student consent, but this should be straightforward to obtain). Secondly please could universities notify students of outcome decisions once a day at say 18.00?  An early evening notification, after the school day has ended, gives pupils time to discuss outcomes with their parents/carers and process good/bad news before they see their peers in school.  A good night’s sleep can make even bad news slightly more palatable.  Once a day university admissions notifications also relieve the anxiety of email pings, and the worry that each and every email received could bring good or bad university news.

These two administrative changes are quick fixes that could bring immediate practical benefits to students and schools.  I hope they can be implemented.


30 November 2021