Admissions reform: learn from other countries, says new report

The report from Professor Graeme Atherton and the Sutton Trust analyses post-qualification admissions systems around the world

The higher education sector should draw lessons from how other countries organise their higher education (HE) admission systems, says a new report authored by Professor Graeme Atherton and produced by the Sutton Trust.

Published as the government consultation on the future of HE admissions closes, University Admissions: The International Picture looks at how 31 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) organise HE admissions.

Of these 31 countries, 20 have post-qualification offers (PQO) systems – where students make applications before taking exams, but universities wait until results day to confirm offers.

The remaining 11 have post-qualification application (PQA) systems – where students apply and receive offers after getting their grades in the summer.

The report examines admissions timetables in other OECD countries


Several European countries operate university application timetables similar to that proposed by the PQA model in the government consultation.

The report also groups the different types of HE admission system in the OECD into five categories:

  • A: ‘HE as right’ – Mainly central/eastern European countries (including France and Germany) where entry to HE is a right when a school-leaving certificate is obtained. Includes nine countries who are nearly all PQO
  • B: ‘Big Test’ – Mainly non-European countries (such as the US and Japan) with national set piece entry tests mandatory for entry to most HEIs/courses. Includes six countries who are all PQA
  • C: ‘University driven’ – Mainly European countries (eg Spain, Portugal, Italy) where, even though students have a school-leaving certificate, there is a strong emphasis on universities setting entry criteria/tests to enter. Includes nine countries who are a mix of PQO/PQA
  • D: ‘Central application’ – Scandinavian/West European countries with national application agencies and combination of entry as a right/university tests. Includes five countries who are nearly all PQO
  • E: ‘Anglo Admission’ – UK linked countries (Australia, New Zealand, Ireland) where entry is based on school-leaving examinations and grades. Includes five countries who are all PQO (including England).


The majority of OECD countries combine performance in final school-leaving examinations with university- or course-specific tests to give a fuller picture of student potential and manage admission to high-demand courses.

Post-qualification applications best solution for university admissions – AthertonPost-qualification applications best solution for university admissions – Graeme Atherton
NEON’s Graeme Atherton is in favour of post-qualification applications


The report highlights practical examples of how other countries improve student decision-making, such as the ‘Study Choice Check’ in the Netherlands, where applicants’ fit for their selected programme is assessed via an interview or questionnaire, and the ‘change of mind’ period in Ireland where students can amend their choices as they are taking their final schooling examinations and getting a better idea of their grades.

Launched in January 2021, along with a raft of other shake-ups to higher education, the DfE consultation on post-qualification admissions (PQA) closed on 13 May.

Last week, Universities UK and the Russell Group published their responses, coming out broadly in favour of PQO. However, a recent report from National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) and the University and College Union (UCU) argued for the PQA model.

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