Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



Valerie Davey

  20. Who determines when UCAS sets the deadline for universities? Where is the power, in other words, in determining the deadline for applications. As you know, the recommendation from the Committee was that there should be a common date. That, it seemed to us, would simplify, take away certain barriers about the procedures. If there were a common date which everybody knew, that would simplify matters and, we believe, make it fairer. Who should determine that?
  (Dr Higgins) It is a decision made by the UCAS board, usually after consultation with its members; that is to say, member institutions and others with whom they will consult, including schools and colleges. This is a very interesting one because one of our deadlines is much later than the new 15 January deadline—that is in March—because we are looking to recruit students to studio-based art and design courses who have come from diagnostic foundation courses. So already there is a much later closing date for them. We have decided to extend the closing date this year, or from next year onwards, to 15 January, to give people more time to decide what they want to do. That might present a difficulty for Oxford and Cambridge. At the moment, in the way that they consider their applicants, where they interview virtually every applicant they have—all from the whole of field—and it is a residential interview, they probably would not be able to do that until the Easter vacation, by which stage all other decisions would be made. It is an issue that we will have to take up.

  21. If you set a deadline and the universities decide not to play ball, presumably they have it in their remit, as Oxford and Cambridge, to say, "Well, actually, we will not use that system."
  (Dr Higgins) No. They have to abide by the rules and they have to give everybody equal consideration up to that deadline. When the deadline passes -and there will be probably, this year, something like 334,000 applicants already—


  22. For what? For all universities?
  (Dr Higgins) For all universities and colleges—and that number will go up by another 100,000 between now and the beginning of the academic year—but when they pass that deadline, then applicants are only considered at the institutions' discretion. If they have very few places left, well, tough, and if it is a subject in low demand, then they will be snapped up.

Valerie Davey

  23. Why have we not reached this situation which we are heading for before? What have been the barriers or what do you anticipate might be the further barriers in achieving what the Committee is looking for?
  (Dr Higgins) I hope that the Committee is trying to achieve a post qualification application system. That is something which I first proposed as long back as 1993.


  24. You were on the Committee chaired by Christopher Price.
  (Dr Higgins) That is right, yes. We had a consultation conference about six or seven weeks ago. The churches were there, the travel industry, the teacher unions and the head teachers unions. It will be very interesting to see eventually what emerges from the whole consultation, but the one thing that bound all together—and there were critics of the proposals and supporters—was the concept of the PQA: being able to apply after you have got your qualification.

Valerie Davey

  25. That is very reassuring and very encouraging.
  (Dr Higgins) I was actually quite excited by it.


  26. A very strong head of steam for PQA.
  (Dr Higgins) Absolutely.

Mr St Aubyn

  27. Incidentally, I saw your letter congratulating us on a great report. As you know, there were two reports, one of which quoted extensively your own views, and I will not embarrass you by asking you which one you were particularly referring to! I want to compare and contrast these two approaches. One is focusing on whether students are first generation and the second is which post code they come from. It seems to me that in both cases there is no absolutely certain method of trying to identify the sort of students we are talking about. Presumably they are both rough and ready approaches to the problem.
  (Dr Higgins) I do not think they are quite as rough and ready as some people suggest. We may be one of the only organisations in the country which collects social class in the normal way, through parental background, and also collects post codes. The post code analysis does appear to be quite a good proxy for social class. I know somebody who used to live in Gateshead in a very big, smart house but he was in one of the worst post code areas in the whole of the country. So there are some exceptions but I think it is pretty good.

  28. I do not like to say it, but you could have a mansion in Gateshead or you could live in a council flat in Guildford.
  (Dr Higgins) Yes.

  29. In terms of your human rights' issue, it is sort of raised for that, I think. It is presented: if you come from a less well off home in an area where the post code is deemed to be well off, then you are getting a raw deal, particularly under the system proposed by the Government. If the majority of the report's recommendations were to come through, with more funding, that might be where people might start complaining, do you think, under the human rights' legislation, that they were getting a raw deal?
  (Dr Higgins) I imagine it would be very difficult to pin down. Very difficult.

  30. I am trying to understand where this human rights' issue really plays for individual characters. Where is their grief actually going to get a hearing under this system?
  (Dr Higgins) Let us just suppose, for example, a university that is saying, "We think we are going to take in more people with Bs, Cs and Ds at A-level than we necessarily have in the past—after all, performance at A-level is not necessarily a brilliant predictor of performance at degree level." I think one of the universities made that announcement a couple of years ago and there was an outcry from the independent sector: "This is not fair. We are trying to get our people in with As and you are taking people with Bs, Cs and Ds." That could be—and I am no lawyer—discrimination in some way, shape or form under the Human Rights Act. It could be.

  31. Does UCAS have any role at all in ensuring that the application process is fair? Or are you just there as a process in the middle between the students on the one side and the higher education institutions on the other?
  (Dr Higgins) No, we have a role to try and see that it is fair. But I think, again, it comes through in one of the Committee's recommendations in the first report that we need to do some fairly in depth work to understand how the admissions process actually works. What influences people to apply or not to apply or where to apply? How are decisions taken by admissions staff? What makes young people decide not to accept one offer or to accept another? Then, once we know exactly how it all works—and, again, I agree with the Committee there should be some increased professionalisation in the way that the applications system is managed—we could perhaps try to bring together a PI based on fairness—the fairness shown by institutions as well as fairness shown by the applicants.

  32. To be clear, if I had a constituent who felt that their child had been unfairly discriminated against—
  (Dr Higgins) You would write to me.

  33. We could certainly write to you about it.
  (Dr Higgins) I would take it up with the university. Particularly if your constituent said, "Well, the university said the course was filled up on a first-come, first served basis and I did not apply until the middle of November, when it was too late." That would then be a cause for a letter from me to the Vice Chancellor to keep your admissions procedures in order. On the other hand, if your constituent was complaining about the fact that he or she had gone all the way up to the far North and had only been given a five-minute interview, and did not think that was fair, then I think we would wish to take that up with the university again. But you should know that the Quality Assurance Agency is at the moment putting together a code of practice on admissions and applications issues. It has always worried me that in all this work that the Government is doing in relation to complaints procedures in universities and colleges, when it comes to the applicant they are not actually owned by the university or college, they are just a completely free agent so at the moment they are not subject to any quality control.


  34. How many complaints of the sort that Nick mentioned do you get every year?
  (Dr Higgins) Very few. I could let you know: we will publish them in our annual report. But it is not that many.

  Mr St Aubyn: I would like to ask some questions about the tariff system, but we will be coming on to that later.

  Dr Harris: About this issue of discrimination, in paragraph 97 of our report it says: "HEFCE has noted that for any given total of A-level points, students from comprehensive schools obtain higher classes of degree than those from independent schools." There are similar findings from McNabb, Pal and Sloane in their study, which showed that in 1992 students from maintained schools were a fifth more likely to have been awarded a first class honours degree. The corollary of that is that there are people who would have done better at a lower points score, or as well, who are not allowed in. Let us say they get two Bs and a C, and they do not get the three Bs that people from the private sector are getting regularly because they have the extra coaching and so forth, all the advantages that people want to buy in the private sector. The fact that that gap exists shows that effectively there is discrimination now, if one accepts that final degree result is a better judge of whether your selection is correct rather than A-level points score, which is a marker as to who will do well. Is it not the case at the moment that if nothing happens to act on what appears to be a failure to take into account those differences, then there is already discrimination and cause for complaint from a class of people for whom no effort is being made to ensure that allowances are made?


  35. Did you get the thrust of that, Tony?
  (Dr Higgins) Yes, I sort of got lost halfway through, but ... I do not know is the answer to that. I would really like to see some more work done. The last work on this was done years ago, on the relationship between qualifications on entering and degree classification. I would also like to see some work done—which I have seen attempted but so far I think anyone who has attempted it has failed—actually how to calculate value added.

Valerie Davey

  36. Absolutely.
  (Dr Higgins) There will be those who doubtless will say, "You must take people with the best possible grades," without necessarily looking at the added value. But, then again, there are those who will think in the opposite way.

Dr Harris

  37. At paragraph 100 we had a recommendation for you, which in your note to Barry you do not mention: "We recommend that HEFCE, UCAS and others should commission research into the relative performance in higher education of equally qualified students educated in both independent and state funded schools." The point I am making—and I will try and put it another way with some numbers—is that if you take 100 students, 50 from a comprehensive school and 50 from a private school, with the same A-level results, then you will get a conglomeration of higher success rates skewed towards the comprehensive school status; whereas if you took 20 of your comprehensive applicants from a one A-level point score or two and below, it is only that which gives you parity, for reasons I think I have hinted at, that it is actually harder to get good A-levels from a less strong educational background, socially and schoolwise. So is it not right to make allowances in order to approach that equalisation?
  (Dr Higgins) Yes, I think it is, because you are not going to select somebody on the basis of A-level scores or highers or advanced highers or GNVQ or whatever; you are going to try and select on the basis of the student's potential. The A-level will measure what you have just done; it will not necessarily measure how you are going to achieve in the future.

  38. Is there not the danger with post qualification application that it is all there on a piece of paper? If we have 100 applicants with three Bs and 100 places, we will give those 100 places to people with the three Bs; whereas previously you had the 20 applicants, all of whom were predicted to get three Bs, some of whom got two Bs and a C, and some of those who got two Bs and a C were accepted because they were over-predicted or those allowances were made about their background.
  (Dr Higgins) Not necessarily. It depends what you write in your personal statement, for example. I have had fathers and students or their teachers complaining that their charges have got three As or are going to get three As and did not get a place in medicine. Then you read the personal statement and you can see that this particular person clearly did not want to become a doctor and actually wanted to go into medical research. Well, there are other avenues for going into medical research rather than spending five years training as a doctor. So there is more to it than just using the A-levels predicted or achieved. I do recall recommendation 100—and my colleagues will doubtless pick up on it on Friday—but I would love to see some work done to see what the relationship is between qualifications on entry and degree performance, assuming that degree performance is the right measure.

Mr Marsden

  39. In a way—and, Evan, I am not criticising you for it—Evan's rather labyrinthine questions and the complex situation you have gone into leads me rather nicely to the concerns that we expressed in the report about the so-called gold standard situation with A-levels. Obviously I know that you, when you came before us previously, were vociferous and supportive of your own initiatives for bringing forward the tariff. I wanted on that particular issue just to put a couple of points to you that come out of comments that we received both at the time and subsequently. You have just been talking about the whole issue of potential—and let me say I am a strong supporter of the tariff principle—but if one of the purposes of that is to recognise potential and also to flag up potential applicants at an earlier stage, why should the GCSE results of a particular candidate not be used as part of the mixing equation in your tariff?
  (Dr Higgins) What we are doing in the tariff currently—and we have come a long way since we started the work on it—is to measure qualifications at 18-plus and beyond; in other words, at level 3. The main thrust, apart from to try to get some reality into the numbers, was to try to get some parity of esteem for vocational and academic qualifications. It is a long way to get there—and we still have one or two qualifications to tariff, including the International Baccalaureate. The next question is: Will we develop a credit framework, both at level 3 and also in higher education and—you are perhaps right—should we then try to get some kind of tariff mechanism to calculate GCSE scores and NVQ as well? That is going to be very difficult because we shall doubtless be mixing one set of numbers for another set of numbers. It is all predicated on a particular pass at A-level or AS-level, and the GCSE is a rather different animal, but there is no reason why we should not do that.

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