A plan of action by UCAS could significantly level the playing field for HE, FE and apprenticeships, writes John Cope

UCAS has called this week for serious consideration of changing the way we do higher education admissions, with Universities UK also publishing the conclusion of their Fair Admissions Review today. This comes off the back of a welcome manifesto commitment from the government to consider admissions reform.

As with most debates in education, though, the focus will inevitably be on undergraduate degrees and universities. We saw this with the publication of the Augar Review, with most reaction obsessing about recommendations on tuition fees, but overlooking the important proposals on adult education, higher technical qualification, and colleges.

While publications like FE Week do a good job balancing the debate, all of us need to play our part. And yes, that must include UCAS. I’ve no doubt that if you ask most people what UCAS does, the answer will normally be “the university admissions service, right?”. Most will forget that the “C” stands for colleges – and that universities increasingly use UCAS to advertise their apprenticeships.

This perception needs to change – although interestingly around half of those surveyed currently filling out their UCAS application for next year have told us they’re interested in apprenticeship options.

As well as shifting perception, UCAS needs to overhaul our own systems and processes which, if we are honest with ourselves, are still designed to support three-year undergraduate degrees. We will be setting out plans on how we expand to better support wider choice in the coming months.

These plans will only work, however, if the UK’s application and admissions system is set up in the best way. This is especially relevant for FE and higher technical qualifications, meaning admissions reform offers an important opportunity. Colleges and independent providers need to take it seriously and make sure their voice is heard, especially if there is a consultation.

At the root of admissions reform will be addressing the fact we currently ask people to write their application, choose their courses, and narrow down their options to just two choices based on predicted grades, rather than actual results. It also means that there’s an unhelpful split between academic and technical results days. As a result, life-changing decisions can be made on imperfect information and with the potential next steps in education or training fragmented.

At UCAS, we have been looking closely at potential options for reform. While there are several being contemplated, one in particular stands out for serious consideration in our view and is the option that would likely work best for FE. This model of post-qualification admissions keeps the application writing and research pre-results but would move course offers by universities and colleges so they are made only on actual grades – this avoids the January start model. The reason that this could work better for FE is that it creates an opportunity to combine academic and technical results day, as well as create a new “offer window” where universities, colleges and others could make offers to applicants all at once – whether this window is a day or a few weeks is up for debate. UCAS would also be able to meaningfully integrate apprenticeship options into this window.

This model, if done in the way described, would mean applicants who have done A-levels, an applied general, or a T Level would be able to choose from the full range of next steps at the same time.

I’m not going to pretend this change would be a silver bullet or is enough on its own – it’s not. It could, however, significantly level the playing field and open the door to further changes UCAS and others could make to achieve genuine parity between HE, FE, and apprenticeships.

What is most critical is that any reform of higher education admissions includes voices from FE colleges, independent providers and the whole skills sector. It is an important opportunity and shouldn’t be viewed as just relevant to higher education.