Try explaining the British university admissions system to a foreigner. They look at you as if you’re mad.
'What you do is, you apply to university in January on the basis of what your teacher thinks you will get in a series of cliff-edge exams you sit in May/June called A-levels. Only once you get your results in mid-August – which is to say, about a month before you’re due to start – is your place at university confirmed. But that’s only if you’ve actually achieved your predicted grades. If you haven’t, you go into this thing called 'clearing' where you scrabble around trying to pick up places that might have fallen free…'
Perhaps the kindest way to describe our universities admissions system is 'archaic'. Another way would be to describe it as a huge brake on the life-chances of too many of our young people. And somehow that brake has remained in place for years.
The system’s failings are multiple. It’s messy in the extreme, it’s dependent on grades predicted by teachers who are always, to a certain extent, going to be playing astrology in this regard. And the clearing process encourages many students to make decisions that will affect the rest of their lives almost on a whim, and certainly in breathless haste.
Most concerning, however, is the fact that the use of predicted grades most actively hinders those applicants from deprived communities. Research by the Sutton Trust, the social mobility charity that I founded and chair, has shown that schools unconsciously predict lesser outcomes for their poorest students than they achieve on results day – and in-so-doing lower their sights in terms of the kind of universities they apply to.
Britain is, believe it or not, the only country out of 32 OECD countries that uses such a system – and therefore the only country whose students suffer the dismal consequences of its failings.
Yet it could so easily be otherwise. Reform options exist, have been discussed and debated over many years, and would not be hugely challenging to implement. All that is required is for exams to be taken a few weeks earlier, for the marking of exams to be sped up, and for the start of Freshers Week to be marginally delayed.
That slightly shifted approach – known as post-qualification applications (PQA) – would allow grades to be handed out in time for students to apply to university with the qualifications they have actually achieved; and it would allow universities to make offers based on actual grades, not predicted grades. It’s not complicated.
And yet for years nothing has happened. The intransigence and immovability of the major players is quite breath-taking. The determined refusal, for example, of the exam boards to embrace the digital revolution and mark exam scripts in a slightly speedier timeframe than the one set out decades ago is, frankly, unfathomable. A senior education figure once said to me that they had 'never seen grown-ups behave in their own self-interest to this extent at the expense of young people'.
And so I was delighted when, with the burning embers of the exam system glowing all around him, the education secretary Gavin Williamson declared at the end of last year that he would consult on finally abolishing our university admissions system and would look to replace it with PQA.
So far so good – or so it seemed. But we now hear worrying reports that the sector is trying to dilute the reforms and push through something called Post-Qualification Offers. Such a fudge would be worse than disappointing. Under this half-way house, students would still be expected to apply to university in advance of their results and would therefore still be tied to the lottery of predicted grades. Such a system would also not do away with the need for a version of clearing and its associated bunfight.
The exam system in the two years since Covid has been a rolling car crash. But as we pick through the wreckage and attempt to rebuild, there is a golden opportunity to finally bring in a system that allows young people to apply for university with their real grades.
To skate past this chance would be a huge error. This A-level results day we must renew our commitment to making clearing a thing of the past.