UCAS Admissions Process Review
Dear CHEAD, Having discussed the proposed changes with the NAFAE steering group we are broadly supportive of changes to the timing of the admissions process and amendments to the current system that would effectively deplete the current complexities of the system and address the negative stigma of insurance and clearing applications. However, we have significant concerns about the practicality and feasibility of the proposed system for specialist subjects, such as our own, who remain dependent on portfolio evidence to fully appreciate the fit and preparedness of potential learners progressing onto Fine Art Degree provision. We are concerned that the suggested alterations to the examinations and registration timetables, should they be adopted, represent a further erosion of the learners experience and the time allocated to develop learner maturity. We are anxious about the impact of the proposals on student choice; both the pressure this places on institutions with high applicant numbers and the risks it represents to those who are not so focused on competitive profile marketing and high applicant numbers. We think there are clear risks to applicants and doubt that the supposed gains in fairness warrant a significant limitation of choice. We are concerned about the negative impact on the quality and depth of inclusive participation and worry that the consultation document betrays a poor understanding of widening participation work, the nature and character of learners labelled under this heading and the experiences of potential applicants with non-standard experiences or qualifications. We have considered reflective feedback from the perspective of F.E. institutions and those developing and preparing applicants as well as colleagues working within Higher Education institutions. Although we have encountered mixed views the main thrust is that the ambition to delay the application process and accommodate for greater learning experience and awareness by creating a later cycle is appreciated and welcomed. It is difficult for us to understand why the Route B application process was ever amended. As an alternative, the move to a PQA system is not suitable.
We would emphasise, NAFAE is a subject specialist network concerned with education in Fine Art. We are most concerned by the quality and reliability of progression that students experience and the whole curriculum experience. As such, we remain deeply wedded to the diagnostic processes that prepare the skills and critical awareness of students at the formative learning stages of Level 3. Our priority is to ensure that the applicant is properly supported by suitable provision pre-entry into HE and that the conditions of application do not limit the quality or relevance of that education. We would always argue that the Foundation Diploma is the preferred pathway into degree level learning in Fine Art. As such, we welcome the spirit of the proposed changes but believe that they are too heavily weighted towards the qualification by examination and standard routes into higher learning through A levels. In terms of the process of application, we trust the artefact and the relation that both the student and the assessor can have with the evidence of achievement that the portfolio provides. We would, therefore, assume that selection by portfolio assessment would normally offer the fairest process.
We would agree that the current arrangements for applications in January are detrimental: students are still developing conceptually and the months leading to the final stages of Level 3 are key to that development and preparation for university. While diagnostic courses such as Foundation, which are essential in preparing students for the broad range of Art and Design courses, have adjusted successfully and responded to the challenges the earlier deadline presents, a later deadline would enable universities to judge better the students' achievements and make fuller use of reliable resources such as portfolios.
Foundation would have a chance to continue to undertake the excellent work in supporting a diagnostic process for students from school. Following the selection of a specialist "pathway" in Art and Design, students would have the opportunity to develop portfolios which fully reflect their achievements. These would continue to include the development of independent design processes as well as contextual understanding through research and work experience etc, suggested within the current Level 4 qualification.
These experiences would give a real indication of potential for study at a higher level as well as a true indication to the student of whether it is a suitable specialism for them. We believe that this proposed change in the application process has the potential to further improve the excellent work Foundation has done in producing higher retention and achievement figures for students at HE. However, the full PQA system leaves the process of admissions far too tight for most institutions to conduct portfolio assessments and there are other impacts that undermine the teaching timetable and the balance of resources.
It is important that the tariff points for Foundation Diplomas continue to be recognised within the new application process. However, we suggest that there is an important piece of work to do in recognising fully the value of prior experience and non-standard learning; this is specifically important to practice led and creative subject fields where the interview or portfolio is the crucial assessment. One institutional response to league table metrics and to the Coalition’s White Paper for Higher Education is to steadily move the tariff benchmark for all applicants on all programmes to 340 points (AAB as expressed in the consultation document). This is a clear disadvantage to students from economically deprived areas and to those whose previous educational environments have not been fully resourced. There is a clear issue for Fine Art in that the highest tariff value for a National Diploma in Foundation Studies for Art and Design is 285 points. This is further compounded by the difficulties in measuring prior experience or alternative qualifications through the tariff system with the largest impact being felt by mature learners or those from a WP background.
The proposals seem to suggest a more efficient system which would minimise disruption by scheduling interviews after the course is completed. However, the 9 week timetable affecting the Apply 2 process is likely to fail as it does not accommodate for local admissions processes and is likely to result in a 5 week window for interviews at a time of year when subject specialist teaching staff are essentially engaged in research, creative practice or scholarly revision. It is imagined that all universities would be able to coordinate their interviews through the existing UCAS system but this is already rent with problems and the paucity of systems sited information and guidance is unlikely to improve sufficiently to accommodate for student error or compensate for the quality of guidance that can be afforded the student at an admissions interview. It is proposed in the consultation that the number of choices available to students would be reduced. Students would still benefit from the opportunities afforded by a system of equal consideration but these seem minimal where only two choices are offered. Of course, the more choices the more complex the whole process and the more time consuming.
There is a concern from some universities that there may be less speculative applications from students as a result of fewer choices. There is an impact on the opportunity for the student to test a course through their attendance at interview. The research phase remains critical, both for students and for recruiting universities however, the proposed MyUCAS system has the potential of loading huge resource into central institutional and admissions departments so that they can service ‘the customer’ and properly support marketing and communications. In turn, there is significant risk to the resource available for teaching delivery as these costs will need to be balanced.
There is not enough information about proposals affecting international students and difficulties with visa application processes and allocations would appear to have been deferred for a later consultation or decision. Similarly, the potential impact of the system on non-standard entrants and part-time learners is not fully explained. In an era of anxiety over the impact of government interventions on recruitment targets and the allocation of student finances, these would appear to be significant omissions. The section currently written into the consultation document implies that UCAS are considering developing their practices to better access fresh opportunities for charging institutions of data services and systems. This section is generating confusion, particularly for those institutions with higher WP profiles and for Fine Art providers with high levels of either international students or mature and part-time learners.
It is imagined that, as suggested within the proposals, that universities would adjust by starting a couple of weeks later than currently, beginning from October 8th. It must be pointed out that any contraction of the teaching timetable would have a devastating effect on the student experience, the student learning cycle and the ability of teachers to develop the skills, knowledge and criticality of the individual learner. The assessment driven culture of education in the UK has already usurped many of the processes of independent learning that add value to the creative curriculum. There is no scope for reducing dedicated teaching and learning time or the independent learning opportunities of the students. There would appear to be no evidence suggesting that institutions would willingly delay the start of the teaching timetable; neither that schools and colleges would support the earlier assessments and examinations. This renders assumptions in the document about the timetable affecting admissions little better than speculation. The suggestion elsewhere, of starting in January is not supported at all, as it would result in either a significant lowering in quality of experience for the student or a major revision of the academic timetable and we are not aware of this possibility from any of our members. Proposals in this section are based on unknowns.
We cannot see why Apply 1 and Apply 3 cannot be adopted at the exclusion of Apply 2. We cannot see why admissions systems should be so reliant on qualifications in preference to other available and variable evidence of competence and suitability. We would suggest that; portfolios, interviews, references and entrance examinations or assessments are a far more reliable method of recruiting students and that these processes may take place at any point in the year. As processes, they are not so adversely affected by prior educational and social privilege as are the qualification sets more usually applied to the admissions process. For Fine Art, such systems provide far better accuracy in the selection process and provide better access to the true measure of achievement and commitment, the actual creative output of the student.
Professor Helen Baker
Professor Paul Haywood
Joint Chair NAFAE