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Admissions review to ensure a ‘system which works for all students’

Sir Michael Barber, Chair of the OfS

Reviewing the admissions system – Status of the consultation 

This consultation is currently paused and will relaunch no earlier than Autumn 2021-22. 

The review has been delayed due to the significant impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the 2020-21 and potentially the 2021-22 admissions cycles.

Our new time-limited condition Z3 to maintain integrity and stability in admissions remains in place until 30 September 2021, unless we choose to consult on removing the condition earlier.  

We are committed to supporting a fair, reliable, and inclusive admissions system and will continue to ensure that students are well supported through the admissions cycle, taking proportionate action where needed. We are pausing our review to avoid placing additional regulatory burden on higher education providers who will be focusing on making admissions in 2021 as fair as possible, in light of any potential further disruption over the course of this cycle.    

We are working closely with the sector, the government and UCAS on this, including through the ministerial task force, with the aim of making sure that next year’s cycle is fair and gives all students the right to choose the right course for them. We will also work with stakeholders and students across the sector before taking a decision on when and how to relaunch the review. 

Any responses to the review made before it was paused will be kept and reviewed when the consultation reopens, subject to any changes we make to the review. 

A major review was launched on 27 Feb by @OfficeStudents, which poses fundamental questions for the future of higher education admissions.

The Office for Students (OfS) is seeking the views of students, staff at universities and colleges, schools and all those with an interest in education, on a range of issues relating to university and college admissions.

The review will consider how the admissions system works for all students, whether they are studying full or part-time for an undergraduate or postgraduate degree, whatever their age.

The consultation asks for respondents to consider issues including:

  • the use and accuracy of predicted grades and personal statements in undergraduate admissions
  • the role of contextual information in admissions for students from disadvantaged backgrounds
  • the use of unconditional offers, which have increased significantly in recent years
  • the use of incentives and inducements in the admissions process across undergraduate and postgraduate study, and providers’ approach to marketing their courses
  • the overarching transparency, fairness and effectiveness of the system for all students.

Three future options for reform of the system are set out in full in the consultation. In brief, they comprise:

  1. Retaining the current system with reforms: if the system is seen as generally working well, one option would be to consider a series of reforms to improve it further which could have a significant benefit for students. Consideration may be given to how the use of contextual admissions can be increased; whether to retain personal statements and ensure greater transparency around entry requirements and how applications are assessed.
  2. Post-qualifications offers for full-time undergraduate admissions: under this option applications would be sent to providers at broadly the same time as they are now. However, offers would only be made after students receive their A-levels (or other equivalent qualification).
  3. Post-qualification applications for full-time undergraduate admissions: various models for this option exist. The OfS sets out one where students might register their interest in particular higher education providers ahead of receiving their results, but wait until they had their results to complete their application.

Respondents are also asked to suggest any other system, or whether a combination of options would best improve the admissions system for full-time undergraduates as well as how the admissions system can be improved more broadly, for all students on all courses. 

The OfS is not proposing a preferred model for the future, recognising that any fundamental changes would require significant cooperation and coordination with a wide range of bodies with an interest in education. Rather, it is using its role as the regulator for higher education in England to help generate debate and discussion about ways in which the admissions system could be made fairer, and help ensure that students from all backgrounds are able to get the most from their studies. The OfS will examine next steps from this autumn.

Commenting, Sir Michael Barber, chair of the OfS, said:

‘There is widespread recognition that certain aspects of the current admissions system are not working, and may be especially unfair on students from disadvantaged backgrounds. A review of admissions is also being carried out by Universities UK, and UCAS are exploring reforms to the admissions process. We will look to work closely with them – and everyone with an interest in the system – as we look forensically at changes that can shape our admissions system in a way which is matched to the needs, achievements and potential of students from all backgrounds.

‘This is fundamentally an open consultation and a genuine attempt to seek views from as wide a range of respondents as possible. Any changes to how and when students apply and receive offers will be complex. They will require the agreement of policy-makers, universities and colleges, examination boards and schools – and will need to demonstrably be in the interests of future students.  We want to use our powers to convene, to consult and to discuss how we can arrive at a system of admissions where the interests of all students are paramount.

‘It will be fundamentally important to seek the views of students – past, present and future – on any changes. Their understanding on the benefits and pitfalls of the current system are crucial if we are to build a system which stands the test of time.

‘Notwithstanding the terms of this review, the OfS will continue to intervene where we have concerns that aspects of the system do not work in students’ interests. We want to gain a deeper understanding of the use of unconditional offers where students could be pressured into accepting an offer which might not be right for them.

‘The review will also consider the use of inappropriate marketing or incentives offered to students at a time when they might be especially vulnerable. Of course, universities and colleges need to market their courses, but they must do so in a way which helps students make a genuinely informed choice about where, what and how they wish to study.’

Clare Marchant, UCAS’ Chief Executive said:

‘We welcome the Office for Students’ consultation and look forward to actively participating in the debate though our data-driven insight, expertise and deep understanding of students’ views.

‘UCAS has continually improved the admissions process for students for almost sixty years, most recently with the introduction of the our new UCAS Hub giving everyone access to online personalised information and advice as they discover their options. The recent reforms we’ve made include the ability for students to release themselves from a confirmed place, which transformed Clearing last year, with 99% of those reapplying successfully getting a new place at university.

‘We’re already planning more innovation and reform to broaden students’ choice, raise aspirations, and consider how the process can be even more transparent, flexible, and personalised. Working with an expert group of students, teachers, and admissions staff since last autumn, we’re exploring how the timetable of offer-making could be improved, how using data science could inform grade predictions, and how we can improve transparency on the range of grades that students are accepted with. We look forward to sharing our insights throughout the spring and summer.’

Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said:

“Our world-leading universities should be open to everyone with the potential. It is therefore vital that their admissions processes are transparent and work in students’ best interests. 

“It is clear some practices, such as conditional unconditional offers, can limit the opportunities and outcomes for some students and changes are needed. The OfS’s Admissions Review will be instrumental in helping assess how the system can be improved. I am particularly pleased that students’ views are being given an important weighting in this consultation.”

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said:

‘There is growing support for a shift to a fairer admissions system, where students apply to university after they have received their results. Allowing students to apply after they receive their results would bring us into line with the rest of the world and eliminate the use of controversial unconditional offers.

‘This review is the opportunity for us to finally move to a system where university offers are based on actual achievement rather than unreliable estimates of potential.’

The OfS will be holding a range of events for students, staff and all those with an interest in the admissions system, in seeking to ensure as wide a range of views as possible are taken into account. 

The consultation was due to close on 21 May 2020.

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