Ofqual has warned exam results could be delayed and students miss out on places if the government relies on slashing marking time to deliver a radical overhaul of university admissions.
The regulator said post-qualification admissions reforms would rely on results for level 3 courses, including AS and A-levels, being released up to three weeks sooner than usual.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson has said the PQA model would see universities base offers on actual results, ending the reliance on predicted grades which is “letting down” bright disadvantaged pupils.
Research from UCL’s Institute of Education showed almost a quarter of high-ability applicants from lower-income households had their results under-predicted between 2013 and 2015.
But Ofqual has now warned that cutting marking time alone to deliver the reforms would “introduce delivery risks that are simply too great and would be unacceptable”.
It says current marking quality cannot be “compromised” by the reduced time for both individual examiners and exam boards carrying out quality assurance.
A shorter marking window will also require more examiners, but Ofqual says it “could not be certain that there would be sufficient examiner capacity.” Recruitment is already sometimes “challenging” in some subjects.
This could see some results delivered late, “disadvantaging those whose results are delayed” in their bid to secure places.
The reforms could also erode the current “contingency time,” which factors in risks like particular subject marking being slower than expected or technology outages.
Ofqual accepts a “limited reduction in marking time could be explored,” but says it “cannot bear all the weight” and changes must come across the system.
It proposes bringing exam start dates forward by a week, starting AS and A Level exams earlier relative to qualifications like GCSEs, and scrapping the one-week gap between issuing results to UCAS and to students.
Introducing a fixed results date could also help, according to the regulator.
Overall Ofqual argues in its response to the DfE’s consultation that “a combination” of such adjustments would be needed to deliver PQA successfully.
It also proposes a pilot of any changes first to boost confidence and “identify unforeseen and unintended consequences”.
The DfE has said its preferred route is “to compress the exam timetable, the marking period and the requirement for UCAS to receive results data well in advance of results day”.
Two models have been proposed, with one delaying only offers until after results and a second delaying both applications and offers.
The consultation on reforms began in January and ends today.