Why PQA should not be PDQ

How solving a small problem like clearing could help solve a big one like youth unemployment: This is an article I wrote some time ago for a publication which never used it because, while it was waiting to be published, UCAS announced the results of its consultation on its proposals for a post-qualification application process. That consultation – quite rightly – dismissed those proposals as effectively not removing the clearing process, but putting everyone into it. PQA was off the table and my modest proposal below never saw the light of day.

Outside of old people’s homes and Daily Mail editorial meetings, it’s not that fashionable these days to call for a return of National Service, but that’s just what I’m going to do. Sort of. Bear with me.

It all starts with university clearing. Who is exactly is it supposed to help? Universities? Students? UCAS? Because it isn’t working. 

During clearing, wannabe students who haven’t found places through the usual admissions system make rash choices about courses and institutions. The correlation between the proportion a uni accepts through clearing and their flunk rate suggests strongly that these are decisions the students – or possibly the universities – come to regret. 

Poor choices don’t help universities either. Sure, they put bums on seats, keeping undersubscribed courses ticking over till the next year of unwilling students land in front of an increasingly demoralised lecturer. But universities know deep down that they should be making their offering available to the students for whom it is most suited, not those left on the shelf by the admissions system.

Even UCAS – normally a well oiled machine (or at least a reliable clockwork automaton) – has its cogs stressed by the disorderly panic of students without places and places without students. It can descend into chaos. A couple of years ago a student told me he had been offered a place during clearing at a university that shall remain nameless after failing the A level in his chosen degree subject. The university told him, “Well, at least you failed in the right subject”. 

Clearing is like a jumble sale: a lot of people get hurt in the crush to buy something most people wouldn’t want. 

I’m not saying there are no bargains to be had. Many of the courses on offer during clearing are well taught courses which would benefit certain students greatly in developing themselves and their employability. However, clearing is not the best way for those niche students and niche courses to find each other. 

And who does it hurt most? The students who are most desperate and least well advised. The ones for who the cost of going to university is challenging enough already and the prospect of extra fees because they have dropped out of a course will be disastrous. In other words, it’s those same students from deprived or non-traditional backgrounds who are constantly disenfranchised by the system.

So what can we do instead? The Government and UCAS have been absolutely right to explore the possibility of a post-qualification admissions system (PQA), but UCAS’s current plan runs the risk of making matters worse by effectively shoving everyone into “New Improved Clearing (now with added weeks!)” rather than taking anyone out of it. 

There is no way around the problem that A levels take time to teach and can only be fully assessed at the end of teaching, that assessment takes time and a well considered admissions process also takes time. There’s just not enough time in the system before the start of the university year in Autumn. 

So, how about we start the year at, well, the start of the year? Or how about different institutions offer different start times? Some might even offer a choice of starting points. Whenever the year starts, the admissions process runs from August (when results are published) to December and you start university as soon after that as the institution offers a starting date. 

But hold on, what do we do with all these errant youths who’ll now have nothing better to do with themselves but tear up our streets while they wait for term to begin? That’s where National Service comes in. 

I’m not suggesting military service nor even a compulsory conscription into any activity. I’m suggesting that it would be good to introduce a period when young people have the explicit opportunity to improve either themselves, their society or both. Similar National Social Service schemes already operate in many countries including, very successfully, in Germany.

This particular stone could slaughter many birds. Employers bemoan the lack of employment skills and work experience among graduates. Academics grumble about their inability to spell or speak clearly. In this mini-gap year, students could play catch-up on these skills (or learn a language or improve their computer wizardry). They could do voluntary work, travel (if they can afford it) or just get a job for a while. The point is that they would be free to focus on what will make them more rounded, employable people. 

In order to work, the Government would have to establish a programme of opportunities – with funding. Certain activities, depending on their social benefit or potential for personal development would attract a small grant for the school leaver. So, for example, for doing a six-month course in business skills, working as an unpaid trainee in a crèche or volunteering for an environmental charity, a school leaver might get £40 a week, say (not perhaps so different from the EMA that the Government possibly now regrets despatching so hastily). 

Everyone (including those who have no intention of going to university) would have the opportunity to do up to six months of such activities during their year after leaving school. And if they choose activities that aren’t on the Government’s list of supported schemes, but rather swan off backpacking in the Punjab or doing other Gap Yah jollies, then that’s fine, but they’re not entitled to the grant.

As a scheme this is intended not merely to slice up the Clearing problem, but also to fry some much bigger fish in the process: the skills gap and the (supposed) lack of engagement in society among our young people. It would involve a willingness to embrace change on the part of our universities (but possibly only among those who suffer at the hands of the clearing system). 

It would also need money from the public purse. However, the costs would not be as high as all that and when compared with the savings and the investment (the flunking students, the dole pay-outs, the better qualified workforce, the free work done on social projects, etc), it looks like a good deal. What’s more, it’s got Big Society written all over it and simply the words ‘National Service’ might raise the pulses of Tory vote-wranglers, so, who knows? Maybe the Government could get behind it.

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