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When data gets uncomfortable - how does better assessment change UK university admission?

Updated: Dec 31, 2023

The UK university sector is witnessing seismic changes. The undergraduate application sector-governed body called UCAS will shortly release unprecedented data on universities’ unconditional admission offers to applicants. That is where students will be accepted onto their chosen course regardless of their exam performance. Dean Machin of the University of Portsmouth has stated that the UCAS data release will realise “increasingly uncomfortable conclusions” for universities and the UCAS system itself.


What’s the Issue? UCAS was created in 1961, long before market-sensitive data was considered critical and HE participation levels were much lower. The learner’s choice of HE institution and course is currently made with grade guestimates and spurious personal statements. High-drop out rates are a real headache for all parties concerned.


Let’s park the developing, hot issue of flawed grade reliability for school (GCSE/ A Level) summative exams. A key component of university application is the UCAS personal statement, a 4,000 character, typed ‘assessment’. As an assessment, the statement is unreliable, gameable, and weak in differentiating applicants. Differentiating is a cornerstone of fair assessment.


Effectively, UK university application is compromised by imperfect tools and out-of-date middleman.


What’s the likelihood of change? The mis-matching of learner-to-course results in the human

cost of dropping out from courses, or sub-optimal student experience. The marketization of

universities will soon witness, as seen in Ireland, student litigation regarding university performance and the student’s tuition expenditure. UCAS costs £42M per year to run, so the

financial gain from removing UCAS is relatively small, but it could be changed to better reflect modern assessment practice and enable better admission practices.


What can we do? Discussion on post-results application is, unsurprisingly, dismissed by UCAS. However, modern, proven, technology-enabled assessment instruments can aid better and quicker admission decisions.


For example, if actual grades and authenticated digital evidence for university applications were used, that would give confidence to all stakeholders. UCAS could become a trusted quality assurance body or clearing house for queries on student evidence. This evidence could include advocacy from employers, teachers, community projects, volunteering. Digital authentication with the opportunity for a university admissions officer to explore 1-2-1 dialogue with that advocate would provide better informed decisions.


With the increasing use of AI for rudimentary admin tasks, admission officers can add value by creating this pastoral dialogue, and, perhaps, maintaining authenticated stakeholder dialogue.


The positive impact on employability or suitability for further, extended study is intriguing – after all, this is part of the assessment regime that an apprentice in England undertakes!


If summative essays are still deemed non-negotiable, the benefits of introducing on-screen e-testing are well known to universities, especially for language assessment.


What’s the Learner Benefit? The learner gets the right choice of institution, location, and course, based on a better mix of robust assessment, authenticated evidence enabled by technology.


Rather than a high-faluting, middle-man, match-making system, UCAS has the opportunity to movetowards a refined, streamlined, tech-enabled ‘pastoral’ system. For example, rather than enable the farce of ‘clearing’ to sweep up the remaining university places (https://www.gov.uk/university-clearing-through-ucas), learners have the opportunity to present a wider and deeper application in the first instance, managed by UCAS.


What should happen now? Universities and UCAS must enter the debate and specify the assessment tools and data they need to build trust and decision-making transparency. How the evidence that ‘healthy competition’ is being maintained will also assuage the sector’s basket of regulators, which now includes the Competition and Markets Authority.


Policy makers need to consider how to overcome objections: protecting A Level validity, handling the perceived weak research corpus of evidence versus summative exams, and comparing time-series data.


As Machin suggests, the acid test will be if short-term sector interests can be overcome with the publication of uncomfortable data that lights a fire under Vice Chancellors.

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