University places should be offered after A-level results, survey of applicants suggests

A new survey of recent university applicants suggests more than half support a post-qualification admissions system

University admissions are under renewed criticism today, after fresh polling suggested ethnic minority and disadvantaged students are significantly more likely to feel short-changed by the system.

According to new Savanta ComRes polling for Universities UK (UUK), less than two thirds of recent applicants agree that the application process works well in its current state.

More than half of applicants said they support a post-qualifications admissions (PQA) system, a shake-up which would upend the current offer-making system. Two in five said, if they could go back, they would make a different decision knowing what they do now.

The survey asked nearly 1,500 British adults who applied to university between 2015 to 2019 about their experience of the system, amid an ongoing review of admissions led by UUK. The Fair Admissions review was launched last July to tackle the rising number of unconditional offers and offer providers guidance on making contextual offers.

Those from ethnic minorities were significantly more likely to say the system was failing them, the survey found. Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students said the system was fair in 62% of cases, compared to 73% of white applicants.

Disadvantaged students were also most strongly in support of binning the current system in favour of PQA. The poll figures suggest that 56% of applicants back moving to PQA, but that figure rises to 60% for BAME respondents and 63% for those who were first in their family to apply.

Responding to the results of the survey, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “There is growing support for a shift to a post-qualification admissions system, where students apply to university after they have received their results. Our research shows such a move would not only be fairer for students, it would bring the UK into line with the rest of the world and eliminate the use of controversial unconditional offers.” The union has previously criticised the make-up of the panel as it doesn’t include any staff directly involved in the admissions process.

Last year, shadow education secretary Angela Rayner signaled support for PQA, but Ucas chief executive Clare Marchant rejected her calls for reform.

“While a post-results admissions service has a natural appeal, the UK-wide consultation UCAS ran in 2012 showed that, if introduced wholesale within the current timetables, it would be likely to significantly disadvantage underrepresented and disabled students, unless secondary and/or university calendars changed,” Ms Marchant said in August 2019.

Read more: Julie Kelly: clearing a way for a better admissions process

Survey results in more detail

Of those who said the application process was unfair, most cited poor careers advice, the length of the application process and a lack of information on providers and courses as reasons.

Of those who said they lacked good careers advice, 45% attended state-run non-selective schools (compared to 28% from state-run selective schools). Those that were first in their family to apply to university were significantly more likely to say the process was too long than their peers (40% compared 24%).

Results in detail

Of those that did not perceive the system as fair:

34% – The career advice I was given wasn’t very helpful

29% – The application process was too long

27% – I didn’t have all the information I needed to make an informed choice about what or where to study

24% – Equal guidance wasn’t given to everyone applying at my school/sixth form college

23% – Guidance wasn’t available for to the course/career I was interested in

22% – I was pressured into applying to university by my school/sixth form college

Although 92% of applicants accepted an offer to study, 13% of accepted students did not start their course. Of the 10% of respondents who either did not accept an offer or start their course, most said it was because the timing wasn’t right for them (29%).

Securing financial support for undergraduate courses might explain why the numbers of mature students at UK universities is decreasing.

Just over 10% of the surveyed applicants either didn’t accept an offer or did not start a course they accepted. Just under one in five said it was because they had concerns about financing themselves, but mature students (those over the age of 21) made up 43% of that figure. Hesa figures show a 49% fall in the number of mature entrants to undergraduate study between 2006-7 and 2016-17.

Basis for the new Fair Admissions review

Prof Julia Buckingham, president of UUK and vice-chancellor of Brunel University London, said: “These findings will inform the recommendations of the ‘Fair Admissions review’ advisory group on how the system can be made fairer and operate in the best interests of all applicants. The group is considering the impact of different types of offers on students and whether it would be beneficial for applicants if universities offered places after they have their grades.

“On the whole university admissions are seen as fair, but all students must have faith in the system and receive careers advice to help them make the best decisions about what and where to study. It is the job of universities, colleges, employers, schools and the government to work together to fill the gaps in good quality careers advice for applicants, and particularly to disadvantaged groups.

“We want to do more to accelerate progress on widening participation at university. The advisory group will make recommendations on the role of good careers advice, contextual offers, bursaries and other incentives in encouraging applications by students from underrepresented communities. These findings point to the need for universities to better explain and increase understanding of contextual offers and their impact on students.”

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