Speech to the Qualifications Information Review – reforming the UCAS Tariff system event organised by Westminster Higher Education Forum

I have to confess to start with, I was rather surprised to be invited as I wouldn’t consider myself to be in any way an expert on the UCAS system and certainly not its technicalities. I suppose that my failure to grip the technicalities stretches back to my own failure to secure any more than one university place when I was applying for university under the old UCCA system. So what I thought I might try and do was to make a few more general points around transition that hopefully might inform some of the discussion around any developments in the UCAS system.

It is important to recognise that there are a range of different ways that you can see education. You can see it as a process of enquiry, personal development, self actualisation and so on. Or you can see it as a process of social sorting, a process by which a group of young people are slotted into the positions which they will take through the rest of their life. The educational thinker Ivan Illich (1971) said that this process of using education as a mechanism for social sorting should be illegal and that we shouldn’t be allowed to discriminate on the basis of qualification any more than we should be allowed to discriminate on the basis of race or gender or anything else. 

Unfortunately our society does not work in the way Illich would have desired and there is a lot of evidence that suggests that Higher Education and young people’s attitudes towards it, by and large, entrench social stratification (e.g. Lynch & O’Riordan, 1998; Archer et al., 2007; Hoelscher, 2008), and so it seems to me, one of the most appropriate contexts that we should bring to a discussion of how we influence that sorting process, is the question of whether this process actually enables or impedes social mobility. With that in mind, I just wanted to make three observations based on my reading of the research in this area, and then just make three quick points about what I think it might be worth taking into account as we look at reforming this system.

I think the first point I would like to make is people rarely make rational decisions (Lehrer, 2010). We have been talking about this a lot this morning in terms of young people and saying, well young people aren’t always in a position to make a good decision at the point at which they are asked to make a decision about what university. We’ve been rightly questioning whether they are able to make a realistic judgement about what the value of the qualification they are going to get is and so on. However it is not only young people who are making decision in this system is it also academics and admissions people. We were talking about personal statements and I mentioned Steven Jones’ research about personal statements (Jones, 2012) which amongst other things questions the criteria that are being used to identify what constitutes a “good personal statement”. Academics and admissions people are clearly mobilising a whole range of different criteria when they are reading personal statements which may not be either rational or supportive of social equity. So I think that it is important to think about how we shape a process that recognises that many of the actors within it aren’t going to be making rational decisions.

The second point I would like to make is that complex bureaucratic systems tend to favour people who have greater educational and social capital. I don’t think it is very helpful to sort of construct this fact as an ethical decision of whether it is right for schools to help their kids to get on or whether kids should ask their parents for help or not. Obviously people are going to use what ever resources they have to maximise their own position within this system. However, we do need to recognise that the people who have more resources, the people who have access to people who have been to university before, the people who have access to greater amounts of advice and guidance and so on, are likely to be able to succeed better in these kind of systems. So again I think we need to think about this as we are reforming the system. Are we making it a place within which merit is able to rise to the top, or is it somewhere that having access to social and educational capital enables you to rise to the top?

The third point I would like to make is that the infrastructure that supports career education, careers information, advice and guidance, has been very substantially decimated over the last 2 or 3 years (Hooley & Watts, 2011; Watts 2012a; Watts, 2012b). What we have seen is the end of Aimhigher, the end of Connexions as was, and the end of Education Business Partnerships. Schools are now exploring a range of different approaches to supporting young people, local authorities are unclear about their current role and my guess would be that this has hit schools that are lower down the socio-economic pecking order hardest. I’d guess this for a range of reasons, but not least because those schools did best out of the old regime as Aimhigher and Connexions was aimed at them. So again we need to think, if we are implementing new systems that a lot of the infrastructure that sought to actively support social mobility has recently been stripped out. 

So some things that I would like to take account of as we develop the system in the future.

I think the first is, to note that qualifications are not well understood. This morning I’ve seen some charts with lists of different qualifications on them and I’ve thought, gosh I don’t know half of those. I think that academics who are making admissions decisions within departments also won’t understand non-traditional qualifications. In fact many of them will not even understand A-Levels and GCSEs that well because many of them did not go to school in the UK. So we need a system that helps all of us to get to grips with a world in which the range of qualifications continues to expand. Academics are not unusual in being confused by the range of qualifications. We do quite a lot of work with employers as well and they are also struggling to understand what all the various different qualifications that are out there actually mean. So whatever system we create going forward needs to create a way that we can make some sort of judgement and comparison between different qualifications. I am not convinced that the kind of current proposal around a database that you go off and look up qualifications on will be intuitive enough to actually get used.

The second point I would like to make going forward, is that young people are only likely to have a chance of making good decisions within this kind of system is if the system is either very simple (which it isn’t) or if they are given advice and guidance, and as we’ve just heard, advice and guidance, by and large, has been stripped out within the school system. So we need to think about how we make a system that either can be pursued with less advice and guidance, or we need to make the case for bringing a greater level of advice and guidance back into a wider range of schools, which is what I would favour.

The final point I would like to make is that UCAS and other processes that support transition to HE are part of a broader educational system. I’m interested in how people access and realise their potential within this broader system. Consequently we may need to rethink our conception of what advice and guidance about transition to HE might look like. If we think of advice and guidance only as a one off consumer choice about which university that you want to go to and about where you might get the best labour market return, then it isn’t a very broad or interesting conception of what education or careers work are trying to do. Somebody made the point earlier on that this is a process not a one time deal and to recognise this we need to put systems that support young people to think about their futures as they move through their school career and beyond.

In fact the process of thinking a
bout your career is not simply a question of going for a one off advice and guidance interview. It is actually a process of ongoing career learning that goes throughout life. I think that this is probably an issue goes beyond the immediate debate about UCAS reform, but I would like careers work within schools to be less about helping people to manage a very complex bureaucratic process and more about the broader questions around thinking about who we are and what we want to do with our lives.

Archer, L., Hollingworth, S., & Halsall, A. (2007). `University’s not for me – I’m a Nike person’: Urban, Working-Class young people’s negotiations of `style’, identity and educational engagement. Sociology , 41 (2), 219-237.

Hoelscher, M., Hayward, G., Ertl, H., & Dunbar???Goddet, H. (2008). The transition from vocational education and training to higher education: a successful pathway? Research Papers in Education, 23 (2), 139-151.

Hooley, T., & Watts, A.G. (2011). Careers Work with Young People: Collapse or Transition? . Derby: International Center for Guidance Studies, University of Derby.

Illich, I. (1971). Deschooling Society. Harper & Row, 1st Edition. Available form http://deschoolingsociety.digress.it/ [Accessed 28th May 2012].

Jones, S., (2012) Work Experience and the UK University Admissions System: Comparing UCAS Statements According to School Type. Presentation to the Education and Employers Taskforce. Available from http://www.educationandemployers.org/research/research-seminars-2011-12/dr-st… [Accessed 28th May 2012].

Lehrer, J. (2010). The Decisive Moment: How the Brain Makes Up Its Mind. London: Canongate.

Lynch, K., & O’Riordan, C. (1998). Inequality in higher education: A study of class barriers. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 19 (4), 445-78.

Watts, A.G. (2012a). Careers England Policy Commentary 15B (Final Version): The Coalition’s Emerging Policies on Career Guidance. Careers England. Available from http://www.careersengland.org.uk/documents/Public/Policy%20Commentary%2015B.pdf [Accessed 28th May 2012].

Watts A.G. (2012b). England Policy Commentary 16. Careers England. Available from http://www.careersengland.org.uk/documents/Public/Policy%20Commentary%2016%20… [Accessed 28th May 2012].

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