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Careful design needed to make Post-Qualification Offer system work, says Russell Group

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 A post-qualification offers system could remove the need for predicted grades while still allowing universities to work with students before they apply to university, the Russell Group has said today (13 May 2021). 

In its response to the Government’s consultation on a post-qualification admission system for higher education the Russell Group, which represents 24 of the UK’s leading universities, has said a post-qualification offers (PQO) system would be the most workable of the two options presented by Government, but only if a number of key issues can be addressed first.

Under this system, students would continue to make university applications before taking exams, with universities and colleges making offers when results are known.

This would allow universities to continue working with and supporting students ahead of their results as they do now – which is particularly important for students from widening participation backgrounds, as well as those with disabilities and mental health conditions.

Making offers after results could also remove reliance on predicted grades and see the end of conditional unconditional offer making.

However, the Russell Group has cautioned that a shift to a new admissions system will require a significant amount of time, effort and financial investment to design and implement effectively and that reform is likely to be challenging for all stakeholders, including schools and students. 

To ensure any new system is fair, workable and transparent to all applicants, the Russell Group is recommending that the Government:

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  • Ensures sufficient time between exams, results, offer-making and course start dates to allow for a robust admissions process
  • Builds in flexibility and efficacy to support admissions including additional entrance testing or interviews if needed
  • Continues to protect university autonomy on admissions decisions
  • Fully considers all students, including those from under-represented groups and following non-traditional routes like mature students
  • Ensures the system supports international admissions and aligns with the devolved administrations
  • Boosts resources for information, advice and guidance (IAG) in schools and colleges.

In its response the Russell Group also recommends universities are given more access to better contextual information, including free school meals (FSM) eligibility data, so that universities can identify, target, support and track prospective applicants from disadvantaged and under-represented backgrounds.

It also warns that any reforms to university admissions must be accompanied by a wider focus on supporting the attainment of students under-represented in higher education; recommending a new national strategy to join up the efforts of universities and schools, colleges, local authorities, charities, and employers, and for this to be co-ordinated through a new Office for Tackling Inequality.

Commenting, Dr Tim Bradshaw, Chief Executive of the Russell Group, said:

“In recent years we have made great strides in improving access to higher education to try and ensure the only thing that decides whether a person goes to university is their desire, determination and potential to succeed.

“Making sure our admissions system is fair and works for everyone is crucial. A wholescale change to admissions will present significant challenges regardless of the approach but, of the options presented by Government, a PQO system – if designed appropriately – could allow universities to balance supporting students with making admissions practices fairer.

“However, if the Government is considering reforms of this scale, we believe now is the time to also consider the bigger picture and address inequality and low attainment across the education system. The UK needs a new, ambitious strategy to support this agenda and join up work by Government, universities, schools, local authorities and others.”

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