Universities UK announces support for post-qualification admissions

The higher education sector should switch to a form of post-qualification admissions system by 2023, the Fair Admissions Review concluded

Higher education looks almost certain to reform university offers in the coming years after Universities UK today recommended the sector switch to post-qualification admissions from 2023 – a week after Ucas announced a similar proposal.

After an 18-month consultation with its 140 university members, UUK has today published its highly anticipated Fair Admissions Review, which commits the 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.

Earlier this week, Ucas announced that its anticipated review of admissions would propose two post-qualification admissions system. 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 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 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 bring “greater transparency and greater confidence” to university admissions, it added.

UUK suggested that PQO– which is also known as post-qualification decisions – would achieve the principal goals of reform, without causing as much disruption to timetables as PQA. “For applicants, there would be greater transparency over entry requirements. They would have more choice for a longer period and the process would be less distracting in the lead up to exams. Post-qualifications offers would also reduce the importance of predicted grades and end the need for unconditional offers,” the review concluded.

UUK appears to prefer a PQO, as opposed to a PQA, system.

The review concluded that “notwithstanding its merits” PQA may cause unnecessary disruption to the education sector after the Covid-19 pandemic. “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,” it added.

There isn’t a perfect one-size-fits-all solution for the variety of courses and institutions, but the review has decided it would be fairer for students to receive university places based on exam results, not predictions
Prof Quintin McKellar, vice-chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire

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.

The organisation conducted polling and consultations with students, schools, colleges, recent graduates, employers and education sector groups before reaching its conclusions.

The fair admissions review also signalled the end of ‘conditional unconditional’ offers, giving HE providers a stark warning: universities that fail to adhere to the new rules will incur “sanctions”. It stopped short of offering details of what penalties are under consideration.

In a bid to improve access and participation, which has stalled at some universities in recent years, the review suggested the sector publish an “explanatory statement on contextual admissions to improve applicant and adviser understanding of how and why they are used”.

The sector should adopt “greater consistency in the data used to inform contextual admissions”, such as free school meals (FSM) status, index of multiple deprivation (IMD) data, and care experienced status, and develop “minimum entry requirements” for students from these backgrounds. The National Union of Students, the Sutton Trust and the Office for Students greeted the commitment on contextual offers.

Prof Quintin McKellar, vice-chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire and chair of the Fair Admissions Review, said: “There isn’t a perfect one-size-fits-all solution for the variety of courses and institutions, but the review has decided it would be fairer for students to receive university places based on exam results, not predictions. Any change to PQA must be taken forward carefully by universities, with further consultation with students, government, and those working across the education sector. We need to be confident that any new process will allow for effective careers advice and support for applicants.”

Beth Linklater, assistant principal of Queen Mary’s College, Basingstoke, and chair of the Ucas Secondary Education Advisory Group, said: “We have explored a range of post-qualifications admission options that could potentially lead to a fairer system in line with the review’s principles and I am excited that our recommendation is being taken forward to full consultation.”

Commenting on the recommendations published by Universities UK today, Vanessa Wilson, chief executive of University Alliance, said:

“We very much welcome the findings of UUK’s review, and its recommendations, which will go some way in building a much improved undergraduate admissions system.

“The proposed consultation on post-qualification admissions in particular is a welcome opportunity for the sector to come together and show leadership on developing a more fair and transparent system.

“We look forward to building on UUK’s extensive engagement with school and college partners to drive ambitious sector-led change that enables learners from a wide range of backgrounds to enter higher education.”

University and College Union general secretary Jo Grady said: ‘We are glad Universities UK has joined us in recognising the need to move to a post-qualification university admissions system. The current system is based on inaccurately predicted results and leads to those from less affluent backgrounds losing out. Allowing students to apply after they receive their results will help level the playing field and put a stop the chaotic clearing scramble. It will also prevent universities using so-called conditional unconditional offers, where an offer becomes unconditional if a student puts the institution as their first choice.”

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