Vice-chancellors have given their backing to a radical overhaul of higher education admissions, which would mean UK students will only be offered places at university once they have their A-level results.
The long-awaited policy change is intended to make the system fairer by eliminating the use of predicted grades, which are often unreliable, and will bring the UK into line with other countries. Universities said it could be introduced as early as 2023/4.
The vice-chancellors’ endorsement of a post-qualifications admissions (PQA) model came after an 18-month review by their representative body, Universities UK (UUK), but debate has raged in the sector for many years.
Under the current system, sixth formers apply to university in January using grades predicted by their teachers, before sitting A-levels in late spring and accepting university offers in June. Results are published in August, meaning those who missed out on their required grades face a scramble to join clearing and find another course.
Under the proposed system, students will have longer to make their university choices and offers will only be made once the university has received an applicant’s grades in August. Providers will then have a one-week window before “offer day”, and students a one-week window afterwards to respond, followed by a clearing process for unplaced applicants.
Critics warned that the current long-drawn-out process would be condensed into a frantic fortnight, with implications for school and university timetables, as well as school staffing at a critical time over the summer holidays. The change could also pose challenges for highly selective courses, which require interviews.
Earlier this week, the universities admissions service Ucas proposed a more radical option, in which applications were not made until after results day, which would then have shifted the start of term back to January. UUK rejected this model because of the level of disruption it would involve, including on international admissions. Further consultation will now take place.
The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, is known to be in favour of reform to ensure greater fairness for disadvantaged young people, including students from black and minority ethnic (BAME) groups. The government made an election promise to improve the applications process and last summer’s exams chaos following the cancellation of GCSE and A-level exams will have helped focus minds.
Responding to the UUK report, a Department for Education spokesperson said: “We have already been clear that reform is required and therefore welcome UUK’s agreement on the need for change. We will set out more on the government’s plans for university admissions shortly.”
Professor Quintin McKellar, vice-chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire and chair of UUK’s Fair Admissions Review, said there wasn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. “Any change to PQA must be taken forward carefully by universities, with further consultation with students, government, and those working across the education sector.”
Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “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 to the chaotic clearing scramble.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, added: “Teachers work hard and diligently to provide accurate predicted grades, but it is not an exact science and never can be. Post-qualification admissions would be better and fairer.”
The UUK review also calls for an end to “conditional unconditional offers” by which students are offered places regardless of exam results if they make an institution their firm choice. It also proposes a new code of practice to maintain standards.
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