Admissions system ‘breeds low aspiration and unfairness’ – Williamson

The announcement follows similar calls for reform from Universities UK and Ucas

The university admissions system “breeds low aspiration and unfairness”, the education secretary Gavin Williamson has said as he announced a radical review of offer-making in England.

Mr Williamson tonight announced his intention to consider post-qualification university admissions in a government consultation “in the coming months”.

“We should celebrate the fact that we are seeing record numbers of disadvantaged students going to university, but the current admissions system is letting down the brightest pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds,” said Mr Williamson. “By using predicted grades it is limiting the aspirations of students before they know what they can achieve.”

He continued: “We need to radically change a system which breeds low aspiration and unfairness. That is why we are exploring how best to transform the admission process to one which can propel young people into the most promising opportunities for them within higher education.

“It has been a challenging time for the education sector, but Covid-19 will not stop this government from levelling the playing field and empowering students to have the very best opportunities to succeed.”

Ucas data for 2019 shows 79% of 18-year-olds in the UK accepted to university with at least three A levels had their grades over-predicted, whereas 8% were under-predicted. Research from UCL’s Institute of Education showed almost a quarter of high-ability applicants from lower-income households had their results under-predicted between 2013 and 2015.

The Department for Education is keen to move to a form of post-qualification system to end the use of ‘conditional unconditional’ offers.

The consultation will provide an opportunity to address any unintended consequences of such major change, as well as practicalities for higher education providers
– Clare Marchant, Ucas 

The announcement follows today’s publication of the Fair Admissions Review, which commits the higher education sector to sweeping reform, including an end to ‘conditional unconditional’ offer-making and the introduction of a type of post-qualification admissions system in three years’ time. The review commissioned by Universities UK (UUK) outlined its analysis of two types of post qualification admission system.

Earlier this week, Ucas proposed two post-qualification admissions systems for consideration. One option would see students apply after receiving their final results; the other would see universities make offers after applicants receive their qualifications. The two options, known as post-qualification applications (PQA) and post-qualification offers (PQO) respectively, would mark a radical departure from the current system, which has drawn growing numbers of bipartisan detractors.

Ucas warned that PQA would dictate enormous changes to the academic year in HE because university courses would have to start in January rather than September.

The UUK Fair Admissions Review reached a similar conclusion, noting that a January start-date would seriously undermine the international competitiveness of UK HE and “represent a possibly unmanageable overhaul” to the exam system. PQA would, however, bring “greater transparency and greater confidence” to university admissions, it added.

However, the UUK review concluded: “Although not as radical a move to reform as shifting applications until after results day, the proposed [PQO] model represents a fair and workable option for applicants.”

Different types of post-qualification admissions systems

PQO – students apply to universities before receiving their results, but a decision on which university they choose is made after receiving their results. Universities can base their offer-making decisions on students’ grades. Students are not locked into a final decision until they know their results.

PQA – students apply to universities after receiving their results. Universities can base their offer-making decisions on students’ achieved grades. Students are free to apply to universities offering courses that match their exact grades, rather than using teacher predicted grades as a guide.

Clare Marchant, chief executive of UCAS, said: “We support the government taking a serious look at reforming the admissions timetable, which we have been doing over the last few months with universities, colleges, students, and schools.

“There are different approaches to reform, so it’s right for any consultation to be open minded and have the aim of levelling up fairness for students. Importantly, the consultation will provide an opportunity to address any unintended consequences of such major change, as well as practicalities for higher education providers.”

Leora Cruddas, chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts (CST), welcomed the review. “While there is much to consider in terms of the detail of these proposals, it is important that we pause to consider the impact of our current arrangements, particularly on students from the most disadvantaged communities.”

Read more: Four in five students want to return to university in January, survey suggests

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