Admissions reform: Universities urge caution as consultation closes

Post-qualification offers (PQO) model broadly finds favour, but vice-chancellors say government must financially invest and look at bigger picture

Universities have highlighted their concerns as the government consultation on post-qualifications admissions (PQA) ends.

Launched in January 2021, along with a raft of other shake-ups to higher education, the DfE consultation on post-qualification admissions (PQA) says the present system is “complex, lacks transparency, works against the interests of some students, and encourages undesirable admissions practices”.

Two new admissions models are under consideration:

  • Post-qualification applications (PQA) – where students apply and receive offers after getting their A-level grades in the summer, and begin courses the following January
  • Post-qualification offers (PQO) – where students continue to make applications before taking exams, but universities wait until results day to confirm offers.


The government consultation ended today (13 May 2021).

Universities UK: ‘We need to get the detail right’

In its response published today, Universities UK (UUK) says any reform to the university admissions system should be accompanied by government investment in careers advice for applicants to boost student choice.

The organisation reaffirmed its backing for recommendations made by last year by the Fair Admissions Review, which suggested a move to a form of ‘post-qualifications offers’ could “build greater levels of transparency and confidence in the system, take away the reliance on predicted grades, and ultimately be fairer for students”.

However, it has highlighted problems with both the approaches proposed by the UK government, saying it believes the PQA model is unworkable, and that the PQO model “would require fundamental adjustments […] This includes a need for the release of a certain amount of applicant information ahead of results being published to allow for the scheduling of interviews, tests and auditions.”

Professor Quintin McKellar CBE, UUK’s vice-president for England and Northern Ireland, chair of the Fair Admissions Review, and vice-chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire, said:

Student polling carried out for the Fair Admissions Review highlighted the importance of high-quality careers advice to applicants during their course decision making. All applicants, not just those from more privileged backgrounds, should be properly supported at such an important time in their lives.

“We believe the government is heading in the right direction in its consultation, but we need to get the detail right so we can truly improve fairness and transparency for students.

“Everyone involved in the education system – teachers, students, universities, colleges, and schools – should work together with the UK government to carefully take forward admissions reform.”

Russell Group: ‘Now is the time to also consider the bigger picture’

The Russell Group says it favours the PQO model, and cautions that “time, effort and financial investment” will be required because any reform will be “challenging for all stakeholders, including schools and students”.

In its response to the government’s consultation, the group representing 24 research-intensive UK universities, has said a PQO system would be the most workable of the two options, but that several key issues must be addressed. It recommends that the government:

  • Ensures sufficient time between exams, results, offer-making and course start dates to allow for a robust admissions process
  • Builds in flexibility and efficacy to support admissions including additional entrance testing or interviews if needed
  • Continues to protect university autonomy on admissions decisions
  • Fully considers all students, including those from under-represented groups and following non-traditional routes like mature students
  • Ensures the system supports international admissions and aligns with the devolved administrations
  • Boosts resources for information, advice and guidance (IAG) in schools and colleges.


The Russell Group also recommends universities are given more access to better contextual information, including free school meals (FSM) eligibility data, in order to support prospective applicants from disadvantaged and under-represented backgrounds.

It also calls for any reform to include a much wider focus on such students, co-ordinated through a new Office for Tackling Inequality.

“In recent years we have made great strides in improving access to higher education to try and ensure the only thing that decides whether a person goes to university is their desire, determination and potential to succeed,” said Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group.

“Making sure our admissions system is fair and works for everyone is crucial. A wholescale change to admissions will present significant challenges regardless of the approach but, of the options presented by Government, a PQO system – if designed appropriately – could allow universities to balance supporting students with making admissions practices fairer.

“However, if the government is considering reforms of this scale, we believe now is the time to also consider the bigger picture and address inequality and low attainment across the education system. The UK needs a new, ambitious strategy to support this agenda and join up work by government, universities, schools, local authorities and others.”

University Alliance: ‘We would prefer to retain and reform the current system’

Meanwhile, mission group University Alliance (UA), has argued in favour of retaining and reforming the current system instead.

In its response to the DfE consultation, the mission group for professional and technical universities says a move to PQA “could be disruptive and costly, and risks losing many of the benefits from the existing system”.

While acknowledging the broad support for PQA, UA believes the current system could be made “significantly simpler, fairer, and more transparent” through a series of reforms, which could include:

  • Enhancing information, advice, and guidance (IAG) about post-18 education and training in schools and colleges,
  • Making admissions processes more transparent, flexible, streamlined and student focused,
  • Overhauling the predicted grades process,
  • Permanently banning conditional unconditional offers.


“We recognise that the higher education admissions system is far from perfect, and we welcome changes to make it fairer and more transparent. However, we believe the most effective way to achieve this is through retaining and reforming the existing admissions system,” said Vanessa Wilson, University Alliance CEO.

“This last year has shown that the current system is adaptable and we should learn from that – now is not the time for a radical overhaul, particularly when the proposed measures don’t address the issues that need fixing.

“Through our submission we have outlined measures that could be taken to radically improve the current system without losing many of its existing benefits, and we look forward to working with the sector and government to explore these.

“Although we would prefer to retain and reform the current system, we recognise that government may wish to proceed with a post-qualification admissions system, and believe a post qualification offers model would be the most fair and transparent way forward in this instance.”

Ongoing debate

The question of admissions reform has been occupying higher education leaders’ minds since long before the government consultation was launched.

In November last year, UUK published the findings of its own, separate investigation that supported the PQO model.

Ucas last month released the conclusion of its two-year investigation into the two proposed 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.

By contrast, a recent report from National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) and the University and College Union (UCU) argued for the PQA model, 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”.

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 PQA was not the answer.

You might also like: Post-qualification admissions not the answer, says Birmingham University VC

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