The majority of students and recent graduates believe the university application process is fair, however the support they receive making their career choices is a concern for many.

New Savanta ComRes polling for Universities UK (UUK) of almost 1,500 British adults who applied to university or college in the UK between 2015-2019 has found that seven in ten (70%) recent applicants think the current process is fair, although more than one in four recent applicants (28%) disagree that the application process works well in its current state.

Perceptions of fairness are being hindered by unhelpful careers advice – with 34% of those who labelled the process unfair naming this as the main reason for it being so – slightly ahead of concerns about how long it takes to navigate through the application process (29%).

Additionally, BAME applicants are more likely to believe the current system is failing them – with applicants significantly less likely to describe the admissions process as fair compared to White applicants (62% vs. 73% respectively).

The findings are among those being used to inform a major review of university admissions, established by UUK in July 2019, involving UCAS, school, college, student and university representatives. It is examining the evidence and will recommend improvements to ensure the system works in students’ best interests.

The ‘Fair admissions review’ advisory group will also consider the value of applicants receiving offers after they have received their academic results.

Responding to the ‘Perceptions of Fairness Research’ for the Fair Admissions Review

Professor Julia Buckingham, President of UUK and Vice-Chancellor & President of Brunel University London, said:

“These findings will inform the recommendations of the ‘Fair admissions review’ advisory group on how the system can be made fairer and operate in the best interests of all applicants. The group is considering the impact of different types of offers on students and whether it would be beneficial for applicants if universities offered places after they have their grades.

“On the whole university admissions are seen as fair, but all students must have faith in the system and receive careers advice to help them make the best decisions about what and where to study. It is the job of universities, colleges, employers, schools and the government to work together to fill the gaps in good quality careers advice for applicants, and particularly to disadvantaged groups.

“We want to do more to accelerate progress on widening participation at university. The advisory group will make recommendations on the role of good careers advice, contextual offers, bursaries and other incentives in encouraging applications by students from underrepresented communities. These findings point to the need for universities to better explain and increase understanding of contextual offers and their impact on students.”

Clare Marchant, UCAS’ Chief Executive said:

‘Its welcome news that most students agree the current application process is fair, and that the clear majority of applicants felt supported when applying, particularly by UCAS.

‘Wider careers advice is an area that students feel they need more support with though, and we are playing an increasingly vital role as they make big decisions about their futures. This year we launched our new UCAS Hub, meaning that for the first time, all students will have access to online personalised information and advice to support them as they consider all their options. We’ve also just integrated key content from Which? University into the UCAS website providing students and their advisers with easy access to valued, independent advice.’

‘This year, we’re expecting some universities’ offer-making strategies to change, though we need to ensure that the admissions process remains fair and transparent for years to come. We are already exploring innovative reforms to the admissions process, including how changing when students receive offers could bring benefits.’

Key findings

  • Almost two thirds of recent applicants (64%) agree that the application process works well in its current state.
  • Those who consider the application process to be unfair, most commonly say this is because the career advice they were given wasn’t very helpful (34%). The second most frequently given reason is that the application process is too long (29%) including 40% of applicants who are the first in their immediate family to apply to university (vs. 24% of those who are not).
  • Applicants report mixed feelings about whether their offers drive them to perform well academically. While four in five (82%) say their offers motivated them to work harder, half (55%) say they made them complacent in studying for exams. Those with contextual offers were more likely than those with conditional offers to say that their offers made them less stressed about the admissions process (78% contextual vs. 69% conditional) and more likely to be complacent in studying for exams (74% contextual vs. 55% conditional).
  • The vast majority of applicants (79%) feel very or fairly well supported by universities and colleges during the applications process.
  • Those receiving contextual offers are twice as likely to say they do not understand the different types of offers (27% vs 13% overall).
  • While almost two-thirds of applicants (64%) think it is fine to apply with predicted grades, one in three (29%) applicants described not having exam results before applying to university as a challenge. More than half of recent applicants (56%) feel universities and colleges should only make offers after people have received their academic results.
  • BAME applicants and those who were the first in their immediate family to apply to university are more likely to agree that offers should be made after receiving academic results (60% BAME applicants vs. 54% White applicants; 63% first in immediate family vs. 49% not first).

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. Data was weighted by age, gender and region in order to be representative of all applicants between 2015-2019. Savanta ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. An executive summary of the findings is attached to this email and full tables are available at 

Separately, 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, which is also informing the work of the 'Fair admissions review' advisory group.

The 'Fair admissions review' advisory group is made up of UCAS, school, college, student, and university representatives. It is expected to publish its findings in spring 2020.

The review will be sensitive to the different contexts that higher education providers are operating in across different UK nations, and work to complement successful initiatives already underway in different parts of the UK.

Contextual offers - lower grade entry requirements – recognise the potential of students whose personal circumstances, such as caring responsibilities and living in the most deprived areas, may have restricted their achievements at school or college.

The chair of the 'Fair admissions review' advisory group is Professor Paddy Nixon, Vice-Chancellor & President, Ulster University. 

Other members are: Professor Stuart Corbridge, Vice-Chancellor, Durham University; Debra Gray, Principal, Grimsby Institute; Professor David Green CBE, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive, University of Worcester; Caroline Hoddinott, Headteacher at Haybridge High School and Sixth Form; Tracey Lancaster, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Resources), Leeds Beckett University; Beth Linklater, Assistant Principal, Queen Mary's College, Basingstoke; Professor Sally Mapstone, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, University of St Andrews; Clare Marchant, Chief Executive, UCAS; Mike Nicholson, Director of Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach, University of Bath; David Ruck, Head of Higher Education and Careers, Bristol Grammar School; Lee Sanders, Registrar and Secretary, University of Birmingham; Claire Sosienski Smith, Vice-President for Higher Education, National Union of Students; Professor Mary Stuart CBE, Vice-Chancellor, University of Lincoln; Professor Rama Thirunamachandran, Vice-Chancellor & Principal, Canterbury Christ Church University; Professor Elizabeth Treasure, Vice-Chancellor, Aberystwyth University; Jo Wilson, Head of Sixth Form, The Pingle Academy, Derbyshire; Professor Edward Peck, Vice-Chancellor, Nottingham Trent University.

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