Reforming the UCAS Tariff?

The UCAS Tariff will be familiar to those of us who have anything to do with university applications and/or admissions. Recently UCAS has carried out a consultation regarding the future of the admissions system, leading to the publication, at the end of July 2012, of the UCAS Qualifications Information Review (QIR, available here). Somewhat predictably the Telegraph has announced that the Tariff ‘is likely to be axed following claims the existing system is outdated’; further, this is a move that ‘could give institutions greater freedom to prioritise candidates taking the toughest courses’.


The Telegraph then recycles an article from August 2011 to remind us of David Willetts’ concern that the Tariff fails to differentiate between subjects. What Willetts and the Telegraph want is a system that defers to the higher status accorded to ‘classic’ subjects; and this is, evidently, what the Telegraph means by ‘outdated’, that the current system does not defer to those subjects. Hence: ‘It may also lead to some academic subjects such as maths, science and foreign languages being given higher ratings than more vocational qualifications.’ What Willetts calls ‘not core academic subjects’ are more often called ‘soft’ subjects, of course. (For the Telegraph’s take on ‘Mickey Mouse’ courses used to boost league table positions, see here. On subject choice and university applications, Fazackerley & Chant, 2008, provide background for the Telegraph/Willetts position.)


What the Telegraph means by ‘greater freedom’ is less clear. Universities already have as much freedom as they want to make offers based on grades, points or a combination thereof, offers that respond to the individual student’s application to a given course. If they have no interest in using the Tariff they are free to ignore it; and some might already publish lists of preferred/non-preferred subjects.


Moreover, if we read the QIR, the results are less clear-cut than the Telegraph’s triumphalism might lead us to believe. According to the QIR the ‘gradual withdrawal’ of the Tariff (Recommendation 2) is supported by two-thirds of HE respondents, but this ‘did not represent a significant change in practice’ (8). This does not read like a clear and unequivocal consensus in favour of change, a view corroborated, as shown below, by responses to Recommendations 3 and 4, where questioning explicitly addresses consequences. Moreover, those who support the Tariff do so because it is more flexible: ‘For HEIs who use the Tariff for setting entry requirements and making offers the recommendation was generally not supported’ (9).


One can see, then, that the QIR does indicate, at the very least, conflict between those institutions who think the Tariff hampers them and those who think its withdrawal would undermine their independence. This conflict is evident also in what is said regarding Recommendation 3 (The development of a rigorous means of comparing ‘demand’ across different qualifications) and Recommendation 4 (The provision of a simple qualifications metric for management information); and discussion here takes us back to ‘classic subjects’ and ‘not core academic subjects’.


On Recommendation 3 the QIR suggests a divergence between those wanting to emphasise ‘academic demand’ and those who preferred ‘a broader measure of demand, recognising the value of a wider range of skills’. Hence, ‘a narrow focus on academic demand would risk devaluing qualifications that aim to provide progression to employment as well as HE’ (10).


Moving on to Recommendation 4, we find ‘[c]oncerns … that a measure based on academic demand would devalue vocational qualifications and may impact on HEIs’ league table positions, widening participation, student recruitment and learner behaviour’ (11). A minority (‘[l]ess than a third’) of HEI respondents ‘agreed that such a qualifications metric should be based on measures of academic demand and qualification size alone’ (11).


One can readily understand that the Telegraph has no interest in reading and reporting what the QIR says. It might well be that the UCAS Tariff will be dropped; it would, however, be a mistake to see this move as representing any kind of consensus among HE providers.

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