Higher education admissions process set for radical shake-up

The government is set to move closer to meeting a manifesto commitment to reform the higher education admissions process.

Earlier this week, UCAS put forward two new “radical” options, one of which is a “post-qualification offers” model where all students, including those on technical and vocational routes, would be offered college and university places at the same time, after their final qualification results in the summer. UCAS made clear this model was its preferred approach.

The other is a “post-qualification application” model, where all students would start the whole application process after their results came through. To allow time for their applications to be submitted, assessed, and for offers to be made and decided upon, the university term would need to begin in January.

Currently, applicants to college or university are given predicted grades by their current education provider, from which colleges and universities can decide whether to offer them “conditional” or “unconditional” offers, and the applicants can then rank their offers in order of preference.

This system has created concerns around the accuracy of predicted grades, especially for disadvantaged applicants whose grades are more likely to be under-predicted, and “conditional unconditional” offers, which offer applicants an unconditional place as long as that university is their first-preference choice.

Writing for FE Week, John Cope, director of strategy, policy and public affairs for the admissions service UCAS, said the current system also creates an “unhelpful split” between academic and technical results and offers, and so “life-changing decisions” on whether to pursue a place at college, university or elsewhere can be made on “imperfect information”.

Reforming the admissions system was a commitment in the Conservative Party’s manifesto, which pledged to “improve the application and offer system for undergraduate students”, with an approach “underpinned by a commitment to fairness, quality of learning and teaching and access”.

Cope argues a post-qualification model could “significantly” level up the playing field for further education and skills providers and create an “offer window” where they and universities could attract applicants at the same time.

UCAS’s modelling coincides with publication today of an 18-month review from Universities UK (UUK), the representative organisation for vice-chancellors, which recommends further consideration be given to reforming undergraduate admissions, based on a post-qualifications model.

This comes after their poll of 1,500 adults who applied for college or university in the UK between 2015 and 2019 found 56 per cent of recent applicants feel universities and colleges should only make offers after people have received their results.

Responding to the report, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, Geoff Barton, said there was “growing consensus” in favour of ending the reliance on predicted grades, and moving to a post-qualification system.

Also commenting on the report, the Office for Students, which has banned “conditional unconditional” offers until next September, warned that while there is “widespread recognition” that the current system is not working, a post-qualification admissions system “is not a magic bullet for fair access”.

UPDATE: Hours after this article was published, the education secretary Gavin Williamson announced that he plans to launch a consultation on changing the HE admissions process so that students receive their offers only once they have obtained their final grades.

No date for when the consultation will launch was given.