From education to employment

The end of predicted grades? New system could see university places offered and awarded on grades rather than predictions

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson

Education Secretary @GavinWilliamson announces plan to review university admissions system #PQA 

Government plans for post-qualification university admissions Consultation will consider how a new, fairer system could increase opportunities and accelerate social mobility in higher education.

Students in England could receive university offers only once they have obtained their final grades under proposals to change the current admissions system, the Education Secretary has announced today (13 November).

Outlining his intention to consider post-qualification university admissions, Gavin Williamson said the Government will consult on proposals to “remove the unfairness” that some groups currently face due to inaccurate predicated grades.

UCAS data for 2019 shows 79% of 18-year-olds in the UK accepted to university with at least 3 A levels had their grades over-predicted, whereas 8% were under-predicted.

The admissions system in England – whereby students choose universities, who then make offers based on predicted grades – can work against high achievers from disadvantaged backgrounds whose grades are more likely to be under-predicted. 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.

Under this current admissions system a whole raft of damaging practices have also emerged, such as the widespread use of unconditional offers.

Gavin Williamson 100x100Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said:

“We should celebrate the fact that we are seeing record numbers of disadvantaged students going to university, but the current admissions system is letting down the brightest pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. By using predicted grades it is limiting the aspirations of students before they know what they can achieve.

“We need to radically change a system which breeds low aspiration and unfairness. That is why we are exploring how best to transform the admission process to one which can propel young people into the most promising opportunities for them within higher education.

“It has been a challenging time for the education sector, but Covid-19 will not stop this Government from levelling the playing field and empowering students to have the very best opportunities to succeed.”

Disadvantaged students are more likely to ‘under-match’ and enter courses below their ability than their advantaged peers. Under-matched students are then more likely to drop out of university, get a lower-class degree and earn less in employment.

Moving to a system where offers are made after students have received their results would also put an end to the soaring use of unconditional offers, which sees students being encouraged to accept an offer which may not be in their best interest, and can leave them unprepared for university study.

A level students who accept an unconditional offer are 11.5% more likely to miss their predicted A levels by three grades or more and are more likely to drop out of their course.

Education sector groups, including UCAS and social mobility charities such as the Sutton Trust, have highlighted the benefits of moving to post-qualification admissions. A recent poll by the Sutton Trust found that two-thirds of young people think this would be fairer than the current system.

Sector Response

Clare Marchant 100x100Clare Marchant, Chief Executive of UCAS, said:

“We support the government taking a serious look at reforming the admissions timetable, which we have been doing over the last few months with universities, colleges, students, and schools.

“There are different approaches to reform, so it’s right for any consultation to be open minded and have the aim of levelling up fairness for students.

“Importantly, the consultation will provide an opportunity to address any unintended consequences of such major change, as well as practicalities for higher education providers.”

Clare added: “Now is the time to take a serious look at reforming the admissions timetable, which we have been doing over the last few months with universities, colleges, students, and schools. There are two options for

reform that could work practically and aim to improve fairness for students, as well as eradicate problems for applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds that have become ingrained into the current admissions process.

“It is absolutely crucial though that we limit any unintended consequences of such major change. UCAS is ready to innovate and we look forward to sharing full details in the coming weeks, and working with colleagues from across the education sector in the UK to develop these ideas further.”

John Cope100x100John Cope, UCAS’ Director of Strategy, Policy, and Public Affairs said:

“Supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds is core to UCAS’ charitable mission – they must be front and centre of our thinking to reforming admissions. What happened on results day this year means concerns around predicted grades need to be addressed. 

“Access to impartial, high-quality information, advice, and personalised support during the months when students are considering their options is essential to level up opportunity, which is why consideration must be given to reforming admissions, so life-changing decisions are made on the certainty of actual exam results, not predictions.”

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

“We welcome that the government is looking at how to make university admissions more transparent and fairer – something which the Sutton Trust has long campaigned for.

“Moving the timing of applications so students apply to university after they receive their exam results would allow young people to make life-changing decisions based on their actual grades, rather than predicted grades, which we know are wrong in the majority of cases, especially for poorer students.

“For many years the Sutton Trust has campaigned to improve social mobility and moving to a system of post-qualification applications would be a major step forward.

“Reforming university admissions is challenging and so it is only right that the government should consult widely across the sector.”

mary boustedDr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:  

“The proposal to move to using real, rather than predicted A level grades to allocate higher education places is overdue and welcome.  It has the potential to eradicate some of the weaknesses in the current system, in particular the under-estimation of predicted grades for disadvantaged students. It should also eliminate any bad practice of unconditional offers which can tie students into courses which are not most suited to their interests and to their future career prospects. 

“However, whilst offers rely so heavily on grades – even when made after results are received – admissions will only ever be as fair as the system which awards these grades. 

“To truly have ‘fair’ admissions we need a fairer qualification system in England – one which is fit for purpose for the 21st century. Currently, grades are based on exams at the end of the course and this disproportionately benefits those who have greater means to prepare for such exams. Covid has exposed a range of inequalities baked into the grading system in England, as well as the way home learning environments are deeply unequal. That is why the National Education Union has called for a review of the system in its recent Fair Grade petition. 

“Any move to post-qualification higher education admissions is going to require careful thought and planning. We expect teachers and leaders to be consulted, and fully involved throughout.” 

Kate Green MP 100x100Kate Green MP, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, said:

“The Government appears to be finally ready to listen to Labour’s repeated calls to reform the university admissions system.

“University admissions must be transparent, fair, and widen access to higher education. The current system simply fails to do this and must be overhauled.

“This consultation announcement is a welcome start, but the Government must also look at the wider factors universities should consider when making offers to students from disadvantaged backgrounds to ensure the system is genuinely fair to all.”

Professor Graham Virgo, Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Education), Cambridge University said:

“The University of Cambridge welcomes the government’s decision to consult on reforming the way students apply to university, particularly through the adoption of a post-qualification admissions system. The University will work with the government towards the shared goal of establishing a system that will better enable our brightest young people, regardless of their background, to access university places that match their ability.”

Leora Cruddas, chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts (CST) said:

“CST supports the Secretary of State’s decision to consult on post-qualification admissions. While there is much to consider in terms of the detail of these proposals, it is important that we pause to consider the impact of our current arrangements, particularly on students from the most disadvantaged communities.”

The Government will look to set out proposals for consultation in the coming months, inviting views from schools, colleges, and universities to make this work in the best interests of students. This will be a collaborative process to explore how post-qualification admissions could work in the UK and whether this will improve social mobility and the experience of students. This will not affect university applications for 2021.

The consultation will also provide an opportunity to look at wider improvements to admissions. This includes reviewing the use of personal statements, when those from state schools are less likely to have support writing their statement and relevant work experience to include, and ensuring students can make more informed choices about further and higher education.

Lee Elliot Major 100x100Lee Elliot Major OBE, Professor of Social Mobility, University of Exeter, said:

“Applying to university with actual A-level grades is a reform that would enhance social mobility as it would sweep away the barriers, from poor advice to low expectations, that for too long have stymied the prospects of poorer students.”


Universities UK also propose a switch to post-qualifications admissions  

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

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.

‘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 Jarvis100x100Alistair 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.”

Admissions Process Review: @UCAS maps reforms of higher education admissions 

On 9th Nov, UCAS announced that students’ university and college offers could soon be based on their actual grades, rather than teachers’ predictions.

Two radical new options for reform are set to be unveiled in the coming weeks. Both would have far-reaching impact and better support students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are often under-predicted and less likely to apply to selective universities. 

Students’ university and college offers could soon be based on their actual grades, rather than teachers’ predictions, under plans to be published by the admissions service.

Under a post-qualification offers model, all students, including those on technical and vocational routes, would receive offers from their chosen universities and colleges on the same day, after getting their final qualification results in the summer.

This means students would not be giving up a potential place until their grades were known, and would retain the long selection window in the prior months, which allows time to support students with disabilities and those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

A post-qualification application model will be put up for discussion, which sees all students apply and receive offers after receiving their qualification results. To allow sufficient time for support from teachers, as well as applications to be submitted, assessed, and offers made and accepted, university term would need to begin in January.

Full details on the two models being proposed and how UCAS will collect and review feedback on them will be published in the coming weeks.

Predicted grades

UCAS data shows for UK 18-year olds accepted to university with at least 3 A levels, 79% of individuals’ grades were overpredicted in 2019 and 8% were underpredicted.

Research from UCL’s Institute of Education shows nearly one in four (24%) high-ability applicants from lower-income households had their results under-predicted between 2013 to 2015. This amounted to 2,765 high ability disadvantaged students in this period. The research defined high ability as grades AAB or higher.

Last month, the Sutton Trust published polling which found that two-thirds of this year’s university entrants are in favour of removing predicted grades from university admissions, with working class applicants more likely to say they would have applied to a more selective university if they had known their final results. Previous Sutton Trust research showed that almost 1,000 disadvantaged high-achieving students per year have their grades under-predicted. 

Unconditional offers

In the 2019 admissions cycle, 37.7% of 18-year-old applicants received an offer with an unconditional element. This means students in 2019 were 34 times more likely to receive an unconditional offer than in 2013.

Analysis published by the OfS shows that those studying for A levels who accept an unconditional offer are more like to drop-out after their first year of study.

UCAS’ previous Admissions Process Review was launched in October 2011, with findings published in March 2012.

Related Articles