Post-qualification applications best solution for university admissions – Atherton

National Education Opportunities Network chief Graeme Atherton says the more radical option is possible with “political commitment, investment, time and innovation”

A move to a post-qualification application system is “essential” to making university admissions fairer for students, a report from the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) and University and College Union (UCU) has argued.

NEON and UCU released their findings at a time of considerable debate over the future of higher education entries.

Today’s report is notable as it supports the more radical of the two models under consideration by a government-commissioned inquiry to overhaul the system, which the secretary of state has accused of breeding “low aspiration“.

The first alternative, post-qualification offers (PQO), would see students apply before end-of-year examinations but receive offers after results day. The second, post-qualification applications (PQA), would see students apply and receive offers after the release of their final grades in the summer.

Prof Graeme Atherton, the author of the report and director of the Centre for Levelling Up at the University of West London and NEON, wrote: “For too long the popular opinion has been that post-qualifications applications is desirable but impractical thus it has been placed in the ‘too hard to tackle’ pile. This paper illustrates that with the necessary political commitment, investment, time and innovation it is possible.”

Atherton’s support for PQA is at odds with the view of the university admissions service, Ucas, and the university representative body, Universities UK, which have announced support for PQO in the last six months. The government review is said to be ready to report its findings in the coming weeks.

UCU and NEON argued in favour of the more drastic proposals, saying it would streamline the process, “slashing the number of applications students make”, and require “only relatively small shifts to the timing of the academic year”.

For too long the popular opinion has been that post-qualifications applications is desirable but impractical thus it has been placed in the ‘too hard to tackle’ pile
– Prof Graeme Atherton

The report’s plan for post-qualification admissions

Under the plan proposed by the report, HE application week would begin in early August and end in September. Entry to HE would last throughout October when the term starts for year 1 students. This condensed window would be possible if students received better information, advice and guidance in years 10 to 13.

Prof Atherton wrote that PQA would “support better choice-making for students from all backgrounds, minimise additional burdens on school/college staff and maintain the ability of higher education institutions (HEIs) to admit students who fit their courses”.

The NEON chief argued that a PQO model was not the right solution because it would rely on predicted grades, of which “over 80% are incorrect, potentially leading to students being under-matched”.

PQA – and not PQO – would eliminate unconditional offers and predicted grades, which would “enable teachers and students to focus more clearly on Level 3 after studies”, Prof Atherton continued. He said half of the students who enter university via clearing, or are from black, Asian and minority backgrounds, are “unhappy” with their choice of course or institution.

Ucas this month released the conclusion of its two-year investigation that considered two new models of reform. It backed PQO on the grounds PQA would entail significant changes to academic calendars and shift the crucial decision-making window for students into the summer holidays, which could disadvantage students from less-affluent backgrounds who need support and guidance from teachers. It would also run the risk of making university offers “purely about exam results, and not individuals,” the Ucas chief executive Clare Marchant said.

In November last year, the organisation representing 140 universities – Universities UK – published the findings of its own, separate investigation that also supported the more conservative PQO model on similar grounds.

Earlier this year, the out-going vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham Prof David Eastwood argued that reforming university admissions is necessary to address “injustices” in the system, but post-qualification admissions (PQA) was not the answer.

NEON concluded it was possible to avoid this problem if students were better-prepared for post-18 education with enhanced information, advice and guidance (IAG). Students should receive 10 hours of IAG a year from year 10 to 13, join a national student futures week at the end of year 12, undertake online course-focused questionnaires and benefit from an enhanced Uni-Connect outreach programme.

Students could “express interest” in up to five courses in the January of the year of examinations and upload their personal statement, reference and background information at the same time. This stage would give universities an indication of the number of likely applicants to expect – and reduce application workloads for students in the summer. An expression of interest could also allow universities to schedule entry assessments and interviews. Universities could bump the start date for first-year students back until mid-October to allow extra time for offer-making. This change would be “feasible” and “minimal”, Prof Atherton concluded.

Do you work in HE and have an opinion on post-qualification admissions reform? Contact

Read more: Interview: Graeme Atherton, widening participation champion, head of AccessHE and director of NEON

Related news: Abolition of BTECs will have ‘devastating’ impact on social mobility, says new NEON report

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