Tom Richmond

On the day that the Government closes its consultation on the future of university admissions, education think tank @EDSKthinktank calls on the Government to create a truly student-centred admissions system through its upcoming reforms. EDSK’s response to the consultation recommends that universities should be forced to be honest and transparent with students throughout the application cycle. 

EDSK’s consultation response identifies several ways in which the current admissions system is designed to suit the interests of universities, not students. Half of A-level students are now accepted to university with lower grades than the universities originally advertised during the admissions cycle. This lack of transparency benefits universities because it means they can simply lower their standards after results day to attract more tuition fee income. This behaviour is unfair and misleading for applicants – particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds – who have no idea what grades they will need to be accepted onto a degree course when they submit their UCAS form. 

EDSK also finds that the dramatic rise in ‘unconditional offers’ in recent years is another sign of some universities prioritising their own financial interests above the interests and wellbeing of students. It is widely known that applicants who accept one of these offers are 12 per cent more likely to miss their predicted A-level results by three or more grades, yet universities continue to freely use unconditional offers to boost their institution’s income knowing that these offers are detrimental to applicants. Unconditional offers can also result in students being accepted onto courses for which they are ill-equipped, but there is no penalty for universities attracting applicants in this manner regardless of whether the applicant subsequently drops out.  

EDSK’s response also highlights the lack of information for applicants about how many places are available on degree courses. Universities do not publish this information because it is not in their interests to show students what their tuition fees will be paying for in terms of student:staff ratios or the quality of their learning experience. Universities also benefit from withholding this information because it means they can expand degree courses after results day to increase enrolments and tuition fee income even if the quality of the degree course suffers because of overcrowding or a poor experience for students. Without knowing exactly how many places are available on a degree course at a specific institution, it is also virtually impossible for applicants to gauge how likely their application is to be successful. 

EDSK’s consultation response concludes that the Government needs to be bolder with its proposed reforms to the admissions system to make sure that the interests of students are prioritised over the interests of universities in future. EDSK recommends that the Government introduces a Post-Qualification Offers (PQO) admissions model with the following features: 

  • Universities should be banned from accepting students who fail to meet their advertised entry grade requirements for a degree course to ensure that there is complete transparency for students before and after results day, which would bring an end to ‘unconditional offers’
  • Universities should be required to publish the number of places available on each degree course at the start of each application cycle, which cannot subsequently be altered by the university after results day
  • The Government should not provide student loan funding for any student who is recruited by a university after missing their entry grades or who is recruited in excess of a university’s stated cap on student places for each degree
  • Rather than universities choosing which applicants to accept or reject based on predicted grades, students should create a list of their 10 preferred degree courses in rank order as part of their UCAS application form. On results day, university places will be automatically allocated by lottery among all the applicants who meet the required entry grades for each degree based on their ranked list of preferences.

Tom Richmond, Director of EDSK and a former advisor to ministers at the Department for Education, said: 

“It is clear that universities can no longer be trusted to act responsibly when attracting and selecting applicants, as demonstrated by the staggering and unjustified rise in ‘unconditional offers’ as well as the refusal of many universities to be open and honest with students about the grades they need to be accepted onto each degree course. 

“Through their upcoming reforms to university admissions, the Government’s objective should be to create a Post-Qualification Offers admissions system based on students choosing universities, not universities choosing students. This will allow ministers to scrap predicted grades, end the scourge of ‘unconditional offers’ and promote fairness and transparency for all applicants, particularly those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.” 

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