More than half of sixth formers want post-qualification admissions, survey suggests

Research by the University of Hertfordshire suggests a majority of future applicants want reform to the admissions process

More than half of sixth formers back the introduction of post-qualification admissions, new research suggests, as Ucas predicts record numbers will find a university place this year through clearing.

A survey of nearly 1,000 16- to 19-year-olds by the University of Hertfordshire found that 61% think they should only be able to apply to higher education after receiving their A-level or BTEC results.

Ucas predicts a record number of students will find a university place through clearing this August after receiving their results.

Clare Marchant, chief executive of Ucas, revealed on Tuesday that she was committed to exploring the introduction of a post-qualification admissions (PQA) system.

Although the introduction of a PQA system is not “insurmountable”, Ms Marchant said she saw more value in a hybrid system that would allow students to apply before receiving their results but make firm decisions about their course and provider after results day.

“I think we need to be careful that it is not a binary choice. There are lots of models in between [the present system and PQA] that don’t have as many unintended consequences,” she explained.

Dr Mairi Watson, pro-vice-chancellor (education and student experience) at the University of Hertfordshire, told University Business: “The pandemic has highlighted that young people want to keep their options open and adaptable. Reviewing the current admissions system to ensure students have more time to consider their options and course choices is something that I support.”

June Hughes, university secretary and registrar at the University of Derby, told University Business that “universities would invest a lot more time this year talking to individual applicants about their circumstances to ensure they find the best match for them”.

The Derby registrar thinks there are merits in a PQA system, but worries that advantaged students will still benefit the most because “their parents know the system”.

“The current system is not perfect, but then nothing is. If we do move towards a PQA system, we have to be careful that by designing out old flaws we don’t introduce new flaws.”

Ms Hughes said social mobility students must be the priority under a new system, but she expressed concern that students “with less support, fewer networks, less advantage” would still lose out in the intense competition for places. “But clearing mainly takes place over three to four days,” she added, “which is too short and doesn’t feel right.”

Record numbers to use clearing this year, Ucas predicts

Ucas anticipates a record 80,000 students will find a place at university this year after receiving their A-level results.

In 2018/19, a record 73,320 students used clearing to secure a place at university or college after receiving their results – either by applying for the first time, choosing to release themselves from a confirmed place, or because they were unsuccessful in meeting their firm and insurance offers. The year before, 66,865 students went through clearing.

There will be 25,000 university courses available in clearing this year, including 4,500 in Russell Group universities that will be seeking to attract students with better-than-expected grades.

Ucas has this year launched Clearing Plus – a “personalised” service that offers unmatched students a range of possible university courses they could apply to. Students will not be able to browse these courses until they have declined both their firm and insurance places, meaning the system will not ostensibly encourage applicants to ‘shop around’ for other courses.

Describing the new process, Ms Marchant said: “We are confident the new personalised clearing in 2020 will transform the experience for students. They won’t need to search through a mountain of courses or make endless phone calls. The most appropriate course options for them as an individual will be presented through their online account.

“Clearing Plus builds on the successful introduction of the online self-release last year, to give students more control while also making the process smarter, fairer, and more personal. Our initial projection is that we expect around 50,000 students to use Clearing Plus to discover their course.”

Reviews consider the case for PQA

Universities UK is running a fair admissions review, which will consult on reforms like post-qualification admissions.

As part of its review, UUK commissioned a poll of 1,500 British adults who applied to UK universities and college between 2015 and 2019; more than half (56%) felt universities and colleges should only make offers after people have received their academic results.

The Office for Students has launched a separate review into higher education admissions. Besides asking respondents to suggest their own, the OfS is laying out three options for system reform in its consultation:

  • Retaining the current system if perceived to be working well, alongside considering how to improve it further
  • Making offers only after students have received their A-levels (or equivalent qualification).
  • Students knowing their results before completing applications to a higher education provider

Rather than proposing a preferred model, the OfS insists it is simply looking to generate debate around fairer admissions. The consultation was put on hold because of Covid-19.

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