Review: #EconTEAching Seminar 20: Are Predicted Grades the Best Way to Identify Potential to Study Economics? by Cloda Jenkins and Pavel Sizov

It was a great pleasure to host Prof Kevin Denny (University College Dublin), Dr Steven Proud (Bristol University) and Dr Richard Murphy (University of Texas at Austin) for an important discussion about how to identify students with the greatest potential to study economics at university. In the seminar we focused on one angle of this very large topic, whether the use of predicted grades was a help or a hindrance to ensuring all those with potential can access places at top universities. This is part of a much wider discussion on diversity in economics, access and widening participation, and more generally whether the admissions process into economics degrees in the UK is effective. The seminar discussion was particularly useful as the speakers shared insights from different countries, building on research and lived experiences working with admissions in different universities.

Pavel Sizov, a UCL Economics first year student, who went through the admission process in 2021, including the many uncertainties due to Covid, attended the seminar and summarises what he took away from the discussion below. As Pavel emphasises, the general view of the panel was that with structural changes, post-qualification entry could be preferable to the use of predicted grades. The panel emphasised that the changes needed were doable but require openness to changing systems and timings of various stages of the examination and admissions processes. All speakers agreed that issues around access and opening opportunities for all those with potential go way deeper than the admissions process. Changing the approach to admissions would not on its own lead to ground-breaking change to diversity in the economics undergraduate population, particularly in Russell Group universities.

Watch out for future EconTEAching seminars in 2022 where we approach this issue from different dimensions. There is no easy answer, but we hope that through these conversations CTaLE, including our associate and seminar co-organiser Stefania Paredes Fuentes (RES Diversity Lead), can push the agenda forward with others. The questions, and answers, are not unique to the UK system and should be of interest to a global audience.

Predicted Grades in the post-COVID University Admissions Paradigm by Pavel Sizov

As a student of the COVID era, I was very excited to hear about CTaLE’s EconTEAching Seminar on predicted grades. Our generation has faced many twists and turns in higher education and university admissions. Although the pandemic brought about waves of anxiety and stress for pupils, parents, and teachers alike, it has also been a catalyst for change and exploration of education and admissions. As the country has been rethinking predicted grades, in this EconTEAching seminar professors from across the world explored their use and the systemic changes that can change our admissions system for the better. Their profound insight makes for an actionable guide to ensure that every bright mind has a chance to study economics at a university in the UK that truly suits them.

How effective is UCAS?

To remind the reader, UCAS currently uses GCSEs, a Personal Statement, a teacher reference, and, most crucially, A-Level predicted grades to aid admissions officers in giving out conditional offers. Setting predicted grades aside, there are many benefits to the current system, namely, centralisation. Unlike the US, where students sometimes pay extraordinary fees, write countless university-specific essays, and obtain headaches from all the different application portals, the UK’s efficient UCAS website ensures that students spend more time on their studies and removes barriers to applying to top universities and courses. The benefits of centralisation extend even further. For instance, unlike the US where SATs are oftentimes not taught in schools, A-levels are in the national curriculum in the UK, further levelling the playing field for students.

But is the system perfect? Not quite, argues Steven Proud. Although the system might offer fewer ‘gatekeepers’ than some other countries, it still does little to help disadvantaged students who faced multiple gatekeepers earlier, such as in primary and lower secondary education. Furthermore, he argued that the level of advice and support in admissions can be unequal, both from the side of the school and the side of the family. For example, state school pupils may not have interview preparation resources available for Oxbridge, and in some schools, students are less likely to receive effective feedback for their personal statements. Some schools even fail to mention the need to take Maths at A-level for aspiring economics students.

Do predicted grades harm or improve admissions?

Predicted grades are the A-level pre-cursors that can greatly impact pupils’ approach to university applications. At the seminar, our three speakers reached consensus concerning the major flaws of predicted grades. Richard Murphy’s extensive research with Gill Wyness (2020) highlights the tendency for teachers to underpredict disadvantaged students, when adjusted for grade differences. This imposes a clear barrier: these students are put -off from applying to better universities and are less likely to receive conditional offers. Universities also face information asymmetry about the real ability of students to perform academically. Richard’s research showed that around 7% of poorer pupils are 7% more likely to attend a university they are overqualified for than richer pupils. As emphasised by Steven Proud, students can make much more informed choices about their choice of university courses once they see their concrete ability at A-levels. Kevin Denny pointed out that countries, such as Ireland, using post-qualification applications avoid this wide array of issues, suggesting a removal of predicted grades can be very desirable.

But is relying solely on A-level results feasible? Once again, our speakers reached agreement on this to be yes. Richard Murphy’s wide, international research shows how other countries have successfully compressed their grading, admissions, and exam periods, giving room for post-qualification enrolment in summer.

How can we improve equality of opportunity for pupils?

An intriguing concept discussed by Steven Proud and Kevin Denny was centralising university admissions even further. Different universities still decide on which candidates to take in based on various half-hidden criteria. For example, some universities may put more emphasis on specific types of non-academic experience in personal statements than others. This may create a potential barrier for students who simply don’t have the time to gather extracurricular experiences, especially if they are working part-time to support their families. Any indication of admissions processes having a bias towards family of alumni or similar could also be a concern. I personally agree that ending systemic discrimination of this sort is crucial, and the CAO system in Ireland, which uses post-qualification applications with no predicted grades or university-level admissions processing, may provide a suitable alternative framework.

However, this alone won’t be enough to fix the ‘input inequality’ as mentioned by Kevin Denny – unequal inputs still yield unequal outputs, even with a procedurally fair system. Such a task is more nuanced, given the highly correlated nature of disadvantaging factors, but nonetheless remains a goal to breaking socio-economic barriers to admissions.

Summing Up

Ultimately, since UCAS is a system with many moving parts, switching to rely less on predicted grades would likely require rethinking the dynamics behind admission timings, structure, and non-A-Level criteria altogether. A pivotal theme in the Panel’s insightful discussion was the benefit of centralising the system further to ensure pupils are encouraged to work consistently throughout their sixth form education to not only achieve high grades, but also explore deeper the various fields universities offer—including economics. Predicted grades is just one of the many variables that should be changed, if not entirely removed, as the UK moves towards a fairer admissions and education environment.

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