OfS launches new review into higher education admissions

Bidding to ensure a “system which works for all students,” views are being sought from all interested parties

The latest in a long line of reviews into higher education admissions launches today.

The views of students, schools, staff at universities and colleges, and “all those with an interest in education” are being sought by the consultation’s instigators, the Office for Students (OfS).

“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,” said OfS chair, Sir Michael Barber.

“This is fundamentally an open consultation and a genuine attempt to seek views from as wide a range of respondents as possible.”

Covering all types of degree and students of any age, respondents are being asked to consider such issues as:

  • 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. “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,” explained Barber
  • The use of incentives and inducements in the admissions process, and providers’ approach to marketing their courses
  • The transparency, fairness and effectiveness of the system for all students

This review is the opportunity for us to finally move to a system where university offers are based on actual achievement
 – UCU general secretary, Jo Grady

The consultation comes at a time when Universities UK and UCAS are making their own reviews into 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,” said Barber.

The current trio of initiatives are but the latest in a series of admissions system reviews over the last two decades or so, including:

  • 1997 – Dearing Report
    Principal author, Sir Ronald Dearing, made 93 recommendations in his final report, including the establishment of a system of post-qualification admissions
  • 2004 – Admissions to Higher Education Steering Group
    Backed moves to increase the number of working class students in higher education. “If you have two students, both of whom have similar marks, it’s okay for universities to choose in order to become a more diverse place,” said group chair, Professor Stephen Schwartz
  • 2012 – UCAS Admissions Process Review
    Consulted on a broad range of proposed reforms, including improved IT systems, additional guidance and better data quality

This is fundamentally an open consultation and a genuine attempt to seek views from as wide a range of respondents as possible
 – OfS chair, Sir Michael Barber

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.

“We want to use our powers to convene, to consult and to discuss,” said Barber.

The National Union of Students has welcomed the move, in particular the review of post-qualification applications.

“It has been clear that for some time the admissions system has not been working in the interest of students, so it is good to see that the OfS is taking action,” said the union’s vice-president (higher education), Claire Sosienski Smith.

“We look forward to engaging with OfS during this process.”

You may also like: It could take a century to close equality gaps in university admissions, think tank warns

The University and College Union (UCU), meanwhile, said the time had already come for students to make their applications only after receiving results.

“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,” said UCU general secretary, Jo Grady.

A recent survey of applicants found 56% backing such a change, particularly among BAME students and those who were first in their family to go into higher education.

“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,” added Grady.

The OfS consultation is open until May 21.

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