Admissions this way!

In an article in the February 2013 issue of Independent Schools Magazine, Tim Hands, Master of Magdalen College School Oxford, and Chair Elect of HMC, offers advice to schools, parents and pupils on likely changes in University entrance and the best way to prepare for them.

In the last edition of this magazine, Chris Ramsey wrote a superb piece* explaining that there is discrimination in the University sector: it’s in favour of the best students. In Chris’s view, which he backed up with copious statistics, the current system provides pretty fair access – and a jolly good thing too. This may not be what you read in the papers, but it is what corresponds to the facts. This article tries to do something different. Its subject is the future not the present, and it tries to predict what independent school pupils, parents and teachers can best do to prepare for the University world of the future.

In 2010, a new era began in higher education. The Browne Report created an HE marketplace. It allowed universities to set whatever fee they wanted, and shifted the emphasis from public to private funding. How things have changed. Only 10 years earlier Gordon Brown had launched his notorious attack on Magdalen College Oxford for not admitting a state school pupil called Laura Spence. Accurate or not, Brown’s speech heralded a set of initiatives designed to identify how you could get the best students to the best universities. The emphasis was not so much on funding principles as on methods of admissions, and many initiatives – like aptitude tests – resulted. 2010 gave us a Tory shade of Brown(e). The underlying emphasis is on the way universities finance themselves not on who they admit. In this new era, pence are likely to talk louder than Spence. Universities have been freed of the dead and restraining arm of the state: they are now in much more open competition with each other. 

What have the results of the Browne reforms been so far? Well, in 2012, overall numbers taking up places to all universities fell by 14%, representing loss of income to Higher Education of a staggering £1.3 billion. This was in part a consequence of a complete cack-handedness in government, with the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing. Messrs Cable and Willetts encouraged top universities to expand by giving them incentives to admit students with the grades AAB, seemingly out of communication with Mr Gove, who was simultaneously restricting the supply of top students by deflating A-level grades.

The consequence is that, according to one estimate, inside the Russell Group, one first year bed in every seven currently lies empty. If the editor will pardon the language you’d be hard
pressed to achieve such a cock-up even if you formed a conspiracy.

This summer accordingly marked a fundamental change in the relationship between universities and applicants. As one leading figure has commented, “until 2012, applicants were chasing places. Now it seems the places will be chasing the applicants.”

In this fundamentally altered dynamic, there are many signs of a radically altered relationship between top universities and independent schools. This is hardly surprising. For, despite efforts in the press to set universities and independent schools at each other’s throats, it has for a long time been obvious that independent schools and universities have an increasing amount in common. They charge a fee. They have autonomy over their curriculum. They have autonomy over their admissions. And – a new one this – universities are at last becoming subject to consumerist pressures, with a need to listen, as independent schools have been asked to do for some time, to the views of students and their parents.

Against this fairly clear background, it’s not difficult to look into the crystal ball, and to predict what will happen in each of the three constituencies of universities, schools, and homes. This is the way things might look. UK universities will become more competitive. This will not only be between themselves, but also in rivalry with overseas universities and with new private providers in this country. Oxbridge will become more selective than ever (though it’s important to note that, across HMC, schools are broadly happy with their acceptance rates). The Oxbridge hegemony (a scourge of English society in my view), will be challenged not only abroad but also by a new emergent group of universities at home. This will include Imperial College London, University College London, Warwick, and perhaps a few others, with Bristol at the head of the pack. Each of these universities will vie for the best candidates, and they will work out different ways of wooing them. 

Schools will focus even more on results. As Vince Cable’s Department for BIS moves the goalposts, ABB, then perhaps ABC, will become critical grades for schools to obtain for their pupils. Not just grades but also marks will be increasingly important. Discrimination against pupils from independent schools will be less likely than ever before. This is because the independent sector represents an indispensable source of high achieving pupils, with experience of paying for their education. But, just as the gap will widen between the good and the less good universities, so too the gap will widen between schools. 

Heads, faced with this increasingly competitive environment, will need to chart clear policies and ensure that proper systems of guidance are in place. They will need to have a view about the attractiveness of overseas options, and to ensure that there is adequate expertise within their academic departments on the increasingly diverse
range of admissions methods and recruitment incentives which universities are likely to employ. 

Heads of Department will need to be expert in the preferences of top universities with regard to personal statements. For the signs are already clear that many top universities will give out clear signals about the kind of candidate they are looking for, will spot whether the personal statement demonstrates this suitability, and will then use every method to ensure that that candidate comes to them. Heads of Department will not only be under pressure to ensure high marks in A-level papers, but will also be under pressure to provide extension opportunities which will allow the personal statement to show a candidate who has gone beyond the syllabus.

All those who advise on University entrance – careers staff, housemasters, house mistresses and the like – will increasingly need to study the ever-changing and variant access criteria at each University. Access will remain a buzzword, but the criteria for access will alter. Do reference writers, for example, currently comment on whether one or both of the candidates parents have been to university? In future, the advantages for including details like this could be critical to success. In the classroom, teachers will, as usual, need to do their best to ensure high marks. There may however, for the immediate future at any rate, be little change in the mix. The government would much like to see a system called Post Qualification Admissions – this means that you choose your University only after you know your A-level grades. PQA has been under discussion for many years, without anyone ever managing to surmount the practical difficulties: you can’t select your University between results day in August and freshers’ week at the start of October. However, an increasing number of universities, led by Cambridge, are waking up to the fact that if you assess candidates on their marks (not grades) at AS-level then you get a pretty good idea of how they are going to
perform at A2. So Cambridge takes a good look at your AS marks, before giving you a conditional offer dependent only on your A2 grades. And parents? Independent school parents are used to paying for education. They are now being asked to pay for three or four more years of it and they understandably want to know that it’s worth their while. Of course, for some careers, like medicine and law, University will remain essential, but other careers – accountancy for example – may prove themselves more flexible.

Most of all, however, as the academic rat race becomes ever rattier, parents will have the good sense to realise and reassert that they want their children to be happy and successful – and in that order. The quality of the school’s pastoral care, and the happiness and confidence it gives children through its extracurricular provision, will become more and more valuable to discerning parents. Such parents will not fail to observe, inside the state sector, that the totemic word Academy signifies a change in label not a change in content, and that the ever greater drive on league tables misses the point about education’s central concern, which is children, not statistics.

Yes, we are in for changing times. But there is no indication that these changing times will bring any shift in recognition of the lasting value that independent education is, nor that the independent sector will not adapt itself quickly, as it always has done, to any new requirements in the world around it.

*Mr Ramsey’s article can be viewed online. He has written a further piece this month.

Click here to read the article © Independent Schools Magazine.