An ill-informed tweet has compelled me to write. It claimed that you cannot game a university interview in the way you can an UCAS personal statement. The tweet was in response to a discussion over Worcester College Oxford’s announcement that it has accepted all of its offer holders for the first time in its history, irrespective of the grades the Ofqual algorithm had awarded each student, and in contrast to other universities across the UK. On social media some commended the decision, lamenting that other universities had not taken the same approach, whilst others pointed out that what is possible for Oxford – interviews and entrance exams – is not possible at other universities. What made the tweet which sparked this blog post so remarkable was not really the lack of knowledge about how university admissions processes work – if that is not how you earn your living, you cannot really be expected to know. Rather what made it stand out was the implicit disdain for students that it conveyed. Masquerading as a reasoned comment, this tweet seems to perpetuate a misconception that students are somehow inherently inclined to cheat for their own personal gain.
Every year there are those who would rain on A’Level students’ parade. This year, however, such comments, seem particularly insidious, even if, in the main, they are outweighed by positive and supportive ones. This particular tweet seemed to deploy a tactic of argumentum ad ignorantiam (i.e. an argument that plays on ignorance in that something simply must be true because it has not yet been proven otherwise). If you want to delve into that topic more deeply, Ece Temelkuran has plenty to say on it in her: How to Lose a Country. The Seven Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship (4th Estate). Irrespective of whether the individual concerned meant to disparage, or was simply crass and thoughtless, the tweet shows how ingrained and widespread such attitudes about students, and by extension about the value of education, actually are. This blog post focuses on redressing some of those misconceptions, hopefully debunking a myth or two whilst sharing some first-hand knowledge.
Even allowing for the theoretical possibility of gaming a UCAS personal statement, doing so will not get you anywhere. Here’s why. University admissions are administered by dedicated and professional teams. The work they do is supported by an academic, assigned to an admissions role, who aids in that process but is largely student facing rather than decision making. If you think that once the applications are in the academic admissions tutor reads every personal statement then think again. Applications go directly to these dedicated and professional admissions teams, who filter each application to see if it fits with the course entry criteria. An academic admissions tutor would only see a student’s UCAS application in a limited number of scenarios – for example, if a student was applying with qualifications from outside the UK school system and even then they would only be asked if the qualification was equivalent and could be accepted. In another scenario they would see a UCAS application just ahead of results day when a student had not quite made the grade for the course they had applied for, but could qualify for a similar course which has slightly lower entry requirements. In that scenario the task would be to scour that personal statement for information that could be used to try and persuade the student to take a different course from the one they had had their heart set on. So, it really is hard to see how a prospective student could or even why they would game their personal statement.
Even in ‘normal times’ trying to console prospective students who have worked hard but have not quite made the grade for whatever reason is a part of the job everyone wishes they did not have to do. The pain and sense of injustice of this year’s cohort, whose were results determined by Ofqual’s algorithm and have not got their university places as a consequence, makes this year uniquely difficult for students, their families, schools, colleges and universities (for further information on the algorithm see this article: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/aug/14/punishment-by-statistics-the-father-who-foresaw-a-level-algorithm-flaws). The Good Law Project has already launched a legal action, crowdfunding the Justice for A Level Students campaign as a consequence: https://www.crowdjustice.com/case/justice-for-a-level-students/ . What Worcester College Oxford started, it seems, is gaining some traction – an alumni campaign is underway to try and get all Oxford colleges to follow suit but what Oxford can do does not automatically equate to what all universities can do; this is not meant to excuse them, far from it, it is just to explain from the perspective of someone who has held the role of the academic recruitment and admissions tutor in two of the institutions she’s worked in.
Admissions staff and academics UK-wide likely wish they could place all their offer holders, following Worcester College’s lead. But here’s the rub, why – at present – universities cannot just let everyone in. Firstly, the government caps student numbers. Go over that and universities are financially penalised. Given the financial state of many institutions they are little inclined to take that risk – that does not make it right, but it does give context. Secondly, degrees are regulated by consumer law. Legal experts may be able to offer a more nuanced explanation here, (please do) but my understanding is this – if universities say they offer something then they are legally bound to provide it one way or another, likewise, if universities state certain requirements e.g. specific entry grades are needed, then there is – on the face of it – very little wriggle room around that. The desire to teach these students is there but making that a reality is hampered by what appears to be a fundamental systemic flaw that is bound up with the marketisation of Higher Education, which brought about the regulation of degrees through consumer law in the first place. A change would be truly welcome.
To come back to the the tweet that sparked this blog post – the system has its faults, knowledge about how admissions processes do or do not work is not widely known and that, in fairness, may contribute to misconceptions about how university admissions are processed. What is clear is that right now the cohort of 2020 and especially those who have been downgraded, do not need negative stereotyping about ‘students’. They are looking to gain an education, to follow their dreams, but the one thing they are not looking for is how they can game the system.