UK Government Plans to Review the University Admissions System

Education Secretary announces plans to review the university admissions system and potential move to post qualification admissions.

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

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.

As Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said, 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.

To change a system which breeds low aspiration and unfairness, the government is 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.

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 could 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.

Clare Marchant, Chief Executive of UCAS, supported the government’s reformation of the admissions timetable in universities, colleges and schools. She emphasised that there were different approaches to reform and that further consultations with involved parties would provide an opportunity to address any unintended consequences of such major change, as well as practicalities for higher education providers.

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.”

The Government will assess different options once the consultation is complete. Leora Cruddas, chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts (CST), called for more proposals from schools, colleges, and universities to make the new reform work in the best interests of students. This should be a collaborative process to explore how post-qualification admissions could work in the UK and whether the reform will improve social mobility and the experience of students.

Improvements to admissions will include 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. As Lee 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.

The reform will not affect university applications for 2021.

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