Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)



  40. That is an interesting point, which brings me on to the second point about the strengths and weaknesses of any points tariff. A-levels have been widely criticised, not least on this Committee, for providing a fake gold standard for many people because they do not necessarily give people who come through the non-traditional route the opportunity to show their potential and their qualifications when applying for university. However, one of the things that was put to us in evidence—I think we had this from one or two of the Oxbridge colleges and we were critical, and I think rightly critical, of the rather dog in the manger attitude that Oxford University displayed when they came before us on this issue—is that mature students, part-time as well as full-time, get a better deal in some cases because colleges and universities can examine their backgrounds more effectively than they would do if there was a normal tariff system where all these things were added up and some of these things could not be taken into account. How would you respond to that criticism?
  (Dr Higgins) In the same way as I responded to a question earlier: you are not measuring people, individuals, by numbers—neither by grades nor by numbers. If I were an admissions tutor, which I am not, I would like to see quite a balanced class, a balanced year: I would like to see a mix of mature students and younger students; I would like to see some overseas students in my year; and I would be selecting a class or a year so that everybody would get a balanced, round education. I would not necessarily be selecting them on the basis of numbers or points.

  41. I think that is an important point. Witnesses came before us and said that A-levels were the gold standard and they made it fairly clear that they thought that was the only thing that should be considered. What you are saying in fact, if I understand you rightly, is that the UCAS points tariff will be a substantial advance on the present situation with A-levels but it would still allow individual admissions tutors at university to exercise flexibility in admission outside that.
  (Dr Higgins) Absolutely.

  42. If I could just finish on this point, that means then that there really is no excuse or should be no excuse for universities or university admissions officers dragging their feet about accepting the tariff system on the grounds that it would then rule out their discretion in other areas.
  (Dr Higgins) I agree with you entirely. One university prospectus I read the other day said that it would not be making tariff points offers; on the other hand, it would use the tariff to be able to compare and contrast qualifications in deciding on what level of offer to make.

  43. That makes your point.
  (Dr Higgins) Yes.

Mr St Aubyn

  44. A very simple question first of all, just to understand the tariff. How do you score, say, a grade 8 distinction in a music exam?
  (Dr Higgins) That is not yet tariffed. What we are tariffing will be all qualifications that go into the national qualifications framework. I do not believe at the moment music qualifications are yet in the national qualifications framework, and neither at the moment, actually, is the IB, although it will be fairly shortly.

  45. Do you envisage that it might be in the future?
  (Dr Higgins) I see no reason why not.

  46. Does that not raise the issue that the problem with any tariff is UCAS's view of the different worth of these various qualifications? Should not inquiring universities perhaps have their own view of what is the relative worth of these qualifications?
  (Dr Higgins) I think they do, no doubt. But this is not just the UCAS view. We have had in part a reference group helping us to do this work from the various validating and quality control bodies around the United Kingdom and now we are working closely with the Department of Education Studies at the University of Oxford, who are helping us out on this.

  47. Do you think that moving to the tariff system has any impact on what you mentioned earlier, fraud in the system? Will it make it easier or harder to detect fraud?
  (Dr Higgins) I think it is neither one nor the other.

Dr Harris

  48. I raised the issue of the tariff with Manchester College in Oxford, who take none of their students from conventional routes and very few with A-levels at all, and they said that they found adopting a tariff, because it did not recognise yet some of the things that it is planned to (professional qualifications, the IB, BTEC), would actually limit the flexibility that they have at the moment, because they already have a scheme, as they see it, of ensuring that they can look at whatever qualifications people have, whether they are academic or vocational, and trying to prematurely formalise that into a tariff, until that tariff is as wide and as tested as possible, would limit their options. I got the impression that that was a reasonable approach to take until the tariff was ready for them and they were ready for the tariff; it did not imply that they were not looking at those other qualifications.
  (Dr Higgins) University colleges always have had and always will have the flexibility to admit whichever students they want to. They do not have to rely just on grades. They do not have to rely on numbers. The tariff has its uses because there are those institutions who have given points offers in the past and there will be more points offers in the future, and it has its uses in that we now have for the first time the line drawn between vocational and academic, the AS and the A2, and also, very importantly, the higher and advanced higher levels. But there is nothing to prevent Manchester College or any other university college admitting whichsoever students it wishes to, providing they can matriculate whatever their rules are.

  49. But if they are admitting people from conventional backgrounds with unconditional offers, saying, "Right, we have interviewed you and we will have you, even though we have not looked at you in the round," then there is not much merit in adopting a tariff if they are not setting—
  (Dr Higgins) They may be one of those who choose not to adopt it.

  50. May I ask you about advanced extension A levels. Halsey and McCrum were of the view that the entrance examination to Oxford—and the data on success rates would suggest this strongly—created major advantages for those who were able to prepare students for that exam. The success rates have now equalised, and in fact you have a slightly greater chance of success if you apply from the state sector to Oxford now, once you apply, but that movement only really started after the entrance exam was abolished some years ago. Is there a danger, trying to distinguish between the most able, who are getting the top A-level grades, by this sort of exam will create, unless allowance is made, some advantages for those schools who (a) can prepare their students and (b) are required to be shown to be doing well in this sort of thing as part of the marketing strategy to get customers.
  (Dr Higgins) Yes, I think there is that danger. There is another danger of discrimination in that the advanced extension levels are only available to those doing GCE/A level syllabuses and not the vocational certificate syllabuses.

  51. Some people have argued that a better way of distinguishing between the high achieving people, who are all getting, for instance, three As and applying to read particularly, say, medicine at the more selective universities, like Oxford, would be to interview and to use observational studies that are very much harder to prepare for, such as the work of Dr Jane Mallanby and others who are trying to find ways of distinguishing potential without allowing people to prepare. For example, SATs, if you could buy a few more points for a few hundred dollars by actually having preparation classes for SATs, which were designed to spot intelligence and potential rather than preparation. Should you perhaps be promoting that sort of approach in those small minority of cases where to select people who are all getting the top A-level grades?
  (Dr Higgins) We promote the approach of trying to use whatever method is available—some development of SATs might be one of the possibilities, but I think the jury is still out on that one—that can predict the suitability or the potential of a student to succeed in higher education and not just to select on the basis of grades.

  52. You are aware of the work that Dr Mallanby did on this subject?
  (Dr Higgins) Yes. If this country decides it would like to use something along the lines of SATs, not precisely the American example, developed over here then UCAS would be more than happy to administer it.


  53. Certain members of our Committee, after our visit to the United States, were less convinced about the SATs. I think we rather could be said to have changed our minds about the usefulness of SATs after our visit to the United States, as was reflected certainly in the majority of the report. May I take you back to post qualification access, which is very important. Of course our 10/20 per cent premium gives a real incentive for higher education institutions to follow the money and have the resources to find talented people from non-traditional backgrounds, but also the common application date. I mean, I see those as very much at the heart of our report and many other things as well. Let us go back to PQA because I do not know if we drew enough out of you on that.
  (Dr Higgins) I first proposed PQA in February 1993 at a conference in London and I was told to stop meddling. But gradually it has developed a head of steam. We have examined the possibility of introducing it twice now, and at the moment, even with very sophisticated IT, there just is insufficient time between the publication of the A-level results, or now the vocational studies results as well, in mid-August, to get students into universities by the beginning of the academic year, which is reckoned to be for this purpose mid-September because there are some universities who want to complete a semester by Christmas. The only two ways to me—and the UCAS board is perfectly well behind this—is either to change the start of the university year, which is fraught with all kinds of problems because of international relationships and so on, or to see if we can bring the examining forward—hence, I think, this curious invitation for me to serve on the Local Government Association's commission on examining the school year. I believe that if we could have exams taken in what would be term five (which would be prior to the hay fever time, which would be another advantage), then the results could be out by the middle of July or perhaps the early part of July and then there would be sufficient time to conduct a PQA. You would probably have three choices. Almost certainly the course choice would be sequential to the university or colleges you would apply to. There might be the need for a very mini clearing system.

Mr Marsden

  54. Just a quick detail on that—and I have some strong reservations about it myself. Given the strong momentum in A levels to modular structure, where in fact you probably know 80 per cent of the student's grade at a particular A level before they take their final examination, is there any scope for telescoping the time between setting final exams for A level and actually producing the results for them, which would obviously assist the process as well?
  (Dr Higgins) That is a question, I am afraid, which will have to be directed towards the audit awards bodies.

  55. You have not had those discussions. What I am saying is you have not taken that particular issue up with them.
  (Dr Higgins) We have taken it up with them many times. When we have talked about it in the past, they have said, "Well, there is such a quality control exercise that you cannot possibly truncate the time." One interesting thing here is that there are courses, as you rightly say, the AS examinations, where those young people, students, who at the end of year 12 have got AS grades in three or four subjects for their conduit to higher education, will have results. For the first time admissions tutors can see not only what they have done at GCSE, as they have always done, but also how they have performed in a public examination in those three or four critical subjects. You then possibly have the beginnings, even if we maintain the system as it is, of a sort of PQA, because you are applying after you have got certain qualifications. If we can then, over a period of years, if we then get to PQA, find that performance at AS level turns out to be a pretty good predictor of performance at A level or A2, then there would be much more sureness in so far as admissions tutors are using the grades of whom they would be selecting.


  56. If it is not telling tales out of school, in the private discussion we have just had Christopher Price described the coalition of support for PQA. He thought there was just one group that was rather against PQA. Who is not part of the coalition for PQA?
  (Dr Higgins) I think that everybody will go on to PQA if it could be managed. There are some conservatives in the higher education sector who perhaps are quite happy with the way things are going at the moment. They recruit adequate students who graduate well, they get good researchers, they get good post-graduate students, but if the time could be right I think everybody would buy into it and be perfectly happy with it.

  57. One more question, linking in again. What I am slightly concerned about is this. We have had this discussion and different things have been probed here but on the one hand we have had a group of people here -and this is part of our report—who want to see applications to universities judged in a transparent and open and fair way. There is a bit of you that seems to be saying, "This is all very well because we are going to get post qualification access with a tariff." There is a high degree of anonymity here, you decide on the student, basically on the piece of paper that you see before you. There is another bit of you that seems to be saying, "Ah, but we are providing all this other information and anyway universities can bring in all sorts of other factors to decide on an application." I am sensing an ambivalence between the anonymity: "You get the grades, you get the A levels. Post qualification, that is what gets you in. What are the universities actually doing?" and the sort of touchy-feely other way, with lots of other things built in. Do you see what I am saying?
  (Dr Higgins) Yes, but we are not talking anonymity here, Barry. There must be much more to selecting students than simply putting in marks or grades. One of the transparencies that the universities are introducing is that they are, most of them at any rate, preparing so-called entry profiles which list the criteria against which the students will be selected. It is not just the A-level grades but it is also the other skills and qualities that they are looking for. That is when the person can judge, "Am I the sort of person they are going to select or not?"

Mr St Aubyn

  58. You have mentioned that you felt it was up to examining boards to address the sort of nuts and bolts of this, but do you, as UCAS, have a feeling that the whole process could be speeded up? Is there too much reliance on the old ways of doing it?
  (Dr Higgins) I do not know. I am sufficiently inexperienced in examining. There are many more candidates than there used to be many years ago and they are still managing to produce the results in the same time frame, but I just do not know. One helpful thing would be right at the very outset, that UCAS gets the applicants' results six days before they do, and they just pass them on to universities and colleges over the line. They know exactly what they are going to do with their students, to accept them or not, as the case may be. If we can have them six days before the applicants get them, if it is a post qualification system then the applicants would get them six days earlier than they do already, so already there is a week shaved off there. But it has got to be much more than that.

  59. You contemplate having a slightly earlier exam and an earlier result. That would create a sort of mini gap, would it not? The problem is what to do with the students once they have taken their exam, because already they are taking their exam long before the end of the school term in the summer. What happens to them during that period?
  (Dr Higgins) That term six, which is, right throughout the school career, reckoned to be an enrichment term, would be the term when they would start seriously researching where they are going to apply to and perhaps their choices. That might make life difficult for the university because they will be examining at that stage, and it may not make it that easy for them to hold interviews, but that would be the term, term six, in which they would be preparing. They would read their prospectuses, which would be published much later than they otherwise would have been. They have a pretty good idea by then probably what they are going to get at A level or whatever.

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