Grade prediction system means the brightest, poorest students can miss out on top university places

By Gill Wyness

With UK tuition fees now among the highest in the world, but benefits from having a degree remaining substantial, choosing the right university has never been more important for young people. The government has tried to make this easier by offering more and more information not just on the university experience but on the quality of the institution and even the potential wage return students could reap.

Despite all these efforts to make the decision about where to apply as informed as possible, one issue remains: students still apply to university based on their predicted rather than actual qualifications. And these predictions are not always accurate.

Using information on university applicants’ actual and predicted grades and their university attended, obtained from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), I find only 16% of applicants achieved the A-level grades that they were predicted to achieve, based on their best 3 A-levels.

Whilst the majority of predicted grades were within 1-2 points (where 1 point equates to 1 grade, i.e. the difference between AAA=15 points and AAB=14 points, or DDD and DDE), some 30% of grades were more than 2 points out (AAA vs ABB) either way, and 6% of applicants were out to the tune of 5 points – equivalent to a whole A-level at grade A.

This is perhaps not surprising. By this measure, teachers would have to be able to predict all three of a student’s A-level grades correctly. However it is interesting that the vast majority of applicants – 75% – are ‘over-predicted’ – they receive predictions that are higher than the results they actually go on to achieve. Among these, students from state schools and low SES (socioeconomic status) backgrounds are more likely to be over-predicted than those from independent or grammar schools and students from better-off backgrounds. To some extent this reflects ceiling effects. Its statistically less probable to under-predict someone with DDD (where the low SES state school pupils are more likely to be). and likewise there’s a greater chance of being under-predicted at AAA (where the independent school / better off pupils are more likely to be found).

Whilst we can argue that being over-predicted is not an issue, since this gives students more leeway to apply to good universities, this could eventually lead to trouble if they end up receiving offers from and attending universities that they are under-qualified for, and struggle academically.

However, perhaps more worrying is the group of students who are under-predicted. Being under-predicted is a real problem when it comes to applying for university, since students would be discouraged from applying to a course where they would have been accepted, instead applying to lower tariff institutions (and ultimately being penalised in the labour market). Here I find worrying evidence that ‘high ability’ (AAB or more) but disadvantaged students are significantly more likely to have their grades under-predicted than ‘high ability’ students from the most advantaged backgrounds, even after controlling for school type, gender, ethnicity and year. Although this is a small effect, it is nevertheless a worrying finding – it implies that some of our best students may be being misinformed about their likely potential.

What are the consequences of being under-predicted on students’ university choices? My research shows that under-predicted applicants are 10 percentage points more likely than applicants whose grades were accurate or over-predicted to have applied to a university that they are over-qualified for (defined here as where their own A-level achieved score exceeds the average for that university), and are also significantly more likely to be accepted at such a university. This is also true for the most high attaining students. So, if bright but poor students are more likely to be under-predicted, they are also going to be more likely to end up in universities that they are over-qualified for. And that is what my research finds; among high attaining students, it is the most disadvantaged that are more likely to be over-qualified for their university than the most advantaged.

And even if a prediction is only out by 1 grade – AAB vs AAA – this could still make a big difference to students’ university application decisions. This is particularly true if the under-predicted grade is in a subject required by the course. For example, many courses ask for an A in maths. If you are predicted to get a B you probably wont apply.

Somewhat in response to this, UCAS recently devised an amendment to the system whereby students who achieve higher A-levels than they were predicted to, can go through “adjustment” – i.e. choose to take up an alternative offer. My results show that a tiny proportion of qualified students actually availed themselves of this opportunity, suggesting that knowledge of this particular aspect of the UCAS process is still rather limited – or perhaps that the most desirable places are already full by the time students reach this stage.

So, what can we do to remedy this issue and make a fairer system for all students? One way would be to help teachers to make more accurate predictions, perhaps by increasing student testing throughout the A-level period. But surely a better way would be to simply end the system of predicted grades and let students apply to university based on their actual A-level attainment.

This blog was first published on the UCL Institute of Education blog and can be read here

The full report for UCU can be found here


US Elections: messing with the small print won’t address the issue of student debt

by Richard Murphy

Higher education finance might be the last thing on America’s minds when they cast their votes on Tuesday. However, the fact that both candidates have set out plans to reform the US’ student loan repayment schemes is perhaps indicative of the importance of this issue in the US. The problem is, both candidates are just messing with the small print, and their plans which will do very little to help graduates struggling with student debt.

Trump intends to push for an income-driven repayment plan that would increase the level of the payments students have to make (by increasing the cap on payments from 10 to 12.5 percent of income) but reduce the repayment period to 15 years from its current period of 20-25 years (depending on the scheme). Meanwhile Clinton has endorsed the current plans, with the caveat that she aims to simplify the number of plans.

But will these proposals help students who are struggling with their loan repayment? The short answer is no.

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Higher education, career opportunities, and intergenerational inequality

by Lindsey Macmillan and Gill Wyness

For the most part, when we think about social mobility, our concerns are with those on the lower rungs of society’s ladder; people “for whom life is a struggle and who work all hours to keep their heads above water” as Prime Minster Theresa May put it in her most recent speech on the matter. One of the issues often considered is how likely are those from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter into higher education. This is often viewed as the direct route to the top jobs in the UK where a degree is almost always a pre-requisite now. The hope is that, if society is meritocratic, rewarding those for effort and achievement rather than family background, if we get more disadvantaged kids into higher education then this will equalise their chances of reaching the top jobs. Unfortunately, in the UK, this does not seem to be the case. Recent research by ourselves, and colleagues from Cambridge, Bath and Warwick university has revealed that higher education is not the leveller we might hope it to be, and that socio-economic differences persist throughout higher education and into the graduate labour market, even comparing those with similar educational attainment.

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Degrees benefit society – even when students don’t get ‘graduate jobs’

by Francis Green and Golo Henseke

Every few weeks, a new report emerges raising concerns about the graduate labour market in Britain.

Only recently in the UK, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) came out with a plea for a halt to the expansion drive in higher education. Earlier in the summer, an Institute for Fiscal Studies report, while noting that the graduate earnings premium had been steady (or increasing, even) for many years, warned that the future might not be so bright.

Indeed, there seems to be growing concern that, maybe, higher education has expanded to the limit over the past 20 years and can take no more. So, should governments be worried about the underemployment of graduates – that is, graduates doing supposedly non-graduate jobs?

Our short answer to this question is: “Yes, but…” Let us explain why.

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More universities means faster growth

By Anna Valero and John Van Reenen, Centre for Economic Performance

In 1900, only one in a hundred young people in the world were enrolled at universities, but over the course of the Twentieth Century this rose to one in five.  It turns out that this enormous expansion of the higher education sector was not just the product of riches – it has helped fuel economic growth.

We compiled new data based on UNESCO’s World Higher Education Database detailing the location of 15,000 universities in 1,500 sub-national regions across 78 countries over the period 1950 to 2010. On average, doubling the number of universities in a region increases that region’s subsequent income by over 4%. There are also spillover effects to other regions in the same country, creating a growth multiplier.

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