Ucas to outline two ‘radical’ options for university admission reform

Clare Marchant said the proposals “could work practically” and make the system fairer for disadvantaged students

Higher education admissions could soon be subject to far-reaching reform, as Ucas prepares to reveal “two radical new options” for the future of university offers in the coming weeks.

The university and college admissions service will soon outline two options to replace the current system, which has drawn growing numbers of bipartisan detractors. One option under consideration 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 been criticised by the University and College Union (UCU), the National Union of Students (NUS), and ministers and shadow ministers on both sides of the House of Commons.

The plans “would have far-reaching impact and better support students from disadvantaged backgrounds”, the Ucas statement promised.

There are two options for reform that could work practically and aim to improve fairness for students, as well as eradicate problems for applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds that have become ingrained into the current admissions process
– Clare Marchant, Ucas 

If chosen, PQA would dictate that students submit university applications in the summer after receiving their A-level and BTEC results. To give universities time to process applications and offers, terms would need to begin in January.

PQO would also necessitate changes to university operations, but term times would be unaltered; students would submit applications in the winter preceding their final exams, but universities would not respond until exam boards confirm results in August.

Both systems would stop the controversial practice of ‘conditional unconditional’ offer-making, which has become a bête noire for successive Conservative education ministers. The PQA system would also remove the need for clearing. Clearing has become a more common route into higher education and this year placed more than 70,000 undergraduates.

Clare Marchant said the proposals “could work practically” and make the system fairer for disadvantaged students

Clare Marchant, Ucas chief executive, said: “Now is the time to take 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 two options for reform that could work practically and aim to improve fairness for students, as well as eradicate problems for applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds that have become ingrained into the current admissions process.

“It is absolutely crucial though that we limit any unintended consequences of such major change. Ucas is ready to innovate and we look forward to sharing full details in the coming weeks and working with colleagues from across the education sector in the UK to develop these ideas further.”

John Cope, Ucas director of strategy, policy and public affairs, said: “Supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds is core to UCAS’ charitable mission – they must be front and centre of our thinking to reforming admissions. What happened on results day this year means concerns around predicted grades need to be addressed.

“Access to impartial, high-quality information, advice, and personalised support during the months when students are considering their options is essential to level up opportunity, which is why consideration must be given to reforming admissions, so life-changing decisions are made on the certainty of actual exam results, not predictions.”

The previous Ucas review of admissions, which was published in March 2012, decided against PQA. “While there was a general consensus that, in principle, applying with known qualifications’ grades represents a logical and desirable goal, we heard well articulated concerns from schools, colleges and the higher education sector about the practicalities of implementation and the potential risks such a system could hold for significant groups of applicants,” the review concluded.

Universities UK is set to next week reveal the findings of its own fair admissions review. The Office for Students is also overseeing a review of university admissions.


Read more: University admissions ‘must change’ to make them fair

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