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Post-Qualification Admissions – Major review by education sector leaders recommends series of changes to make university admissions fairer and more transparent

Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK
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@UniversitiesUK proposes switch to post-qualification admission (#PQA) from 2023 subject to full consultation 

Universities UK [UUK] is today publishing its Fair Admissions Review recommendations, which will build greater levels of transparency, trust, and public understanding in admissions practices.

Launched in June 2019, the 18-month review has undertaken an independent and comprehensive analysis of the evidence, involving extensive polling and consultation with students, schools, colleges, recent graduates, employers, and education sector groups.

The Fair Admissions Review, carried out by school, college, university and UCAS leaders, is recommending that the 2004 Schwartz principles on fair university admissions should be updated to make it clear that the best interests of students must always be paramount.

The review recommends that ‘conditional unconditional offers’ – which assure an applicant of a university place irrespective of their final grades, on the proviso the university is their firm choice – are not always in the best interests of students, and so do not meet the revised principles.

However, wider unconditional offers are appropriate under certain circumstances where applicants already have the required grades, those applying to courses where decisions have been informed by an interview, audition or additional application procedure (such as a submission of a portfolio or skills test), those applying to study at a university or college with an established policy regarding non-selective admissions to undergraduate programmes, or those requiring special consideration due to illness or disability.

The new code of practice would make clear that the use of any incentives in offer-making should not place any unnecessary pressure on applicants, must be published clearly, consistently, and communicated to applicants in good time. The review recommends that failure to adhere to the proposed code of practice would result in sanctions for higher education providers.

In the longer-term, the Fair Admissions Review recommends that universities should only offer places to students after exam results are known. This will result in greater transparency and confidence in the admissions system, giving students more choice for longer and will be less distracting for them in the lead up to exams. It would also reduce reliance on predicted grades and be fairer for students.

The review has identified, though, that any change to PQA would have implications for school and university timetabling, and could pose challenges for highly selective courses, and when arranging interviews. It may also mean there are fewer teachers available over the summer to help students make decisions, and less time for applicants to respond to offers. UUK is committed to working with the relevant bodies to ensure any unintended consequences are resolved.

It is expected to take at least three years to implement any possible move to PQA. UUK will fully consult and work with universities, schools, UK government and relevant organisations throughout this period to develop and further test the workability of the new approach.

The review is also recommending that better, and more consistent, information is made publicly available by providers on their use of contextual admissions to further boost social mobility and level up opportunity. Previous polling by UUK showed that those who receive contextual offers – offers made with additional consideration towards personal circumstances – are more likely to say that navigating and understanding offer-making is a challenge when applying.

While qualifications and grades are important, applications must be considered alongside other information which helps to identify potential and to widen access to university, while always upholding standards. The review recommends greater focus is given to those on free school meals, facing deprivation, or who are care experienced.

Sector Response

Emma Hardy 100x100Emma Hardy MP, Labour’s Shadow Universities Minister, commenting on Universities UK’s Fair Admissions Review, said:

“The university admissions system has let students down for years, and Labour have long campaigned for reform.

“University admissions must provide greater clarity and opportunities for applicants, in a way that is fair to all; whatever their backgrounds.

“The Government must now listen to universities, colleges and schools and deliver a system that is fair and transparent.”

peter lampl100x100Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust and chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:

“We welcome the Universities UK Fair Admissions Review, in particular the focus on post-qualification applications and contextual admissions.

“The Trust has long advocated for the introduction of post-qualification applications, where students apply to university with their actual grades in hand. Not only could this help social mobility, but our research shows it would be popular with young people too, with two thirds believing it would make the system fairer. 

“Contextual admissions – taking a student’s background into account when considering their grades – are another important tool for widening access and one that we support.”

Chris Millward 100x100Chris Millward, Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students, said:

‘A fair and robust admissions system is essential for ensuring equality of opportunity for all students, and must help applicants from all backgrounds choose and gain admission to the best possible course and university or college for them.

‘There is evidence that disadvantaged students could benefit from a system where offers are made on the basis of grades achieved rather than predicted grades, particularly in applications to the most selective universities. Post-qualification admissions could also help improve transparency in contextual admissions and other entry requirements.  But it is not a magic bullet for fair access. 

‘So, we will consider all of UUK’s proposals carefully, including the proposed move to post-qualification admissions, and continue to work with partners across the higher education sector to improve the admissions system – that means identifying how to remove barriers to disadvantaged applicants, promoting transparency and clarity about the admissions process and ensuring the system works fairly for all.

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‘There is widespread recognition that aspects of the current system are not working. For example, research suggests that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to receive under-predicted A-level grades. We have also temporarily banned ‘conditional unconditional’ offers during the pandemic due to the pressure that they can put on students to make choices which may not be in their best interests.

‘As Universities UK proposes today, we have also called for universities to make a deeper commitment to contextual offer making. We know that school results are not achieved under equal conditions, and it is crucial that universities and colleges recognise candidates’ potential when making admissions decisions.  That’s what they have committed to do through the access and participation plans agreed with OfS.’

Professor Quintin McKellar CBE, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire, Universities UK’s Vice-President for England and Northern Ireland, and Chair of the Fair Admissions Review, said:

“There is a shared will across the education sector to ensure that admissions are fair for all – raising students’ aspirations and improving their life chances. This review is seeking to build greater levels of transparency, trust, and public understanding in admissions practices.

“On the whole university admissions are seen as fair, but the principles guiding universities should be updated to make it clear that offer-making and practices must always operate in the best interests of students. This means there should be no place for the use of conditional unconditional offers because they can put students under undue pressure.

“There isn’t a perfect one-size-fits-all solution for the variety of courses and institutions, but the review has decided it would be fairer for students to receive university places based on exam results, not predictions. Any change to PQA must be taken forward carefully by universities, with further consultation with students, government, and those working across the education sector. We need to be confident that any new process will allow for effective careers advice and support for applicants.”

Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK, said:

“This major 18-month review has involved in-depth analysis of data and wide-ranging consultation and polling to examine how the admissions system can be improved in the best interest of students. Universities rightly have autonomy over their admissions policies – this autonomy comes with a responsibility to review and evolve practices and address concerns. These recommendations are a sector-led set of reforms built on evidence from applicants, schools, universities, colleges and UCAS that will lead to a fairer and more transparent admissions system.”

Beth Linklater, Assistant Principal, Queen Mary’s College, Basingstoke, and Chair of UCAS’ Secondary Education Advisory Group, said:

“Selecting the right course at the right university is one of the most important decisions many young people will make. Implementation of the review’s recommendations should lead to better information being made available for all applicants, including publication of the actual entry grades for courses.

“The education sector should continue to work together to take forward these recommendations and to develop a more joined up approach to careers advice for applicants, particularly those from disadvantaged groups.

“We have explored a range of post-qualifications admission options that could potentially lead to a fairer system in line with the review’s principles and I am excited that our recommendation is being taken forward to full consultation.”

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, NUS Vice President for Higher Education, said:

“The recommendations here should, if implemented fairly and with student interest front and centre, make for a much fairer admissions system. The wider use of contextual admissions will be vital for levelling the playing field between students from a wealth of backgrounds, and we want to see a system put in place which prioritises the achievement of those who face multiple barriers to higher education.

“Education has the power to be a transformative experience. However, from the A Levels scandal to the experiences of those tricked back to campus so that universities could claim fees and rent, Covid has shown us that our education too frequently relies on and reproduces injustice. It’s clear that we need to not just look again at how students are admitted, but move towards a full-scale transformation until we have an education that is funded, accessible and lifelong for all.”

Universities UK launched its review of fair admissions in June 2019, along with UCAS, school, college, student, and university representatives. These are the members of the Fair admissions review advisory group – Professor Quintin McKellar, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire, replaced Professor Paddy Nixon as chair when he became Vice-Chancellor & President at the University of Canberra in Australia.

UUK’s review is UK-wide with the recommendations above applicable UK-wide, with the exception of changes to contextual admissions where several of the proposals are already in place for the Scottish sector.

The proposal on ending conditional unconditional offers and the introduction of the Code of Practice would be subject to full consultation, led by Universities UK, with students and stakeholders over the winter 2020/spring 2021 with a view to coming into effect following the expiry of the Office for Students temporary restriction on these types of offers in September 2021.

The remit and ownership of the code of practice would be part of this consultation however the Fair Admissions Review recommends that the code should be owned by Universities UK with adherence part of UCAS’ terms and conditions.

The proposal for PQA will be subject of full consultation, led by Universities UK, with stakeholders and students over the winter 2020/spring 2021. Any changes would come into effect for applicants starting at university in autumn 2023 at the earliest.

Earlier this year, Savanta ComRes conducted interviews online with 1,499 adults aged 18+ who have applied to a UK university/college/other higher education institution between 2015-2019 and have been UK residents at the time of applying. Full tables are available at www.comresglobal.com and shorter form findings can found in this pdf.

A total of 181 higher education providers, schools, colleges, current students, recent graduates, parents, employers, representative groups and other bodies responded to UUK’s call for evidence earlier this year, which informed the recommendations of the ‘Fair admissions review’ advisory group.

Universities UK will be running an online conference on this topic on Wednesday 24 February 2021. To find out more details or to register, please click here

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