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Covid-19 an ‘opportunity’ for post-qualification system, says charity

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Sutton Trust highlights potential positives of post-qualification university applications

A social mobility charity has said that the Covid-19 pandemic offers a “rare opportunity” to take a serious look at creating a post-qualification university application system in the UK.

In a paper published on 29 October, the Sutton Trust said the “controversy” surrounding this year’s exam results provided “an important opportunity to take another look at reforming the system”.

“While the disruption caused by Covid-19 has been harmful in many ways, the pandemic has given us a rare opportunity to look more critically at the status quo,” report authors Carl Cullinane, Erica Holt-White and Rebecca Montacute wrote.

A-level exams were cancelled this year, with students instead given results calculated using an algorithm. However, there were widespread complaints of unfairness in the system and the government later allowed students to keep their teacher-assessed grades, which were generally higher, if they wished.

A poll of about 500 university applicants, commissioned by the charity, found that 66 per cent were “in favour of removing predicted grades from university admissions and making decisions based on actual results”, the trust said.

But the authors warned that a post-qualification application system was “not a silver bullet” and that problems around access to higher-tariff universities would remain for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. “It is time to look afresh at the system, and for government to look seriously at how it could be implemented, including how to mitigate against the challenges outlined in this report,” they said.

The Office for Students announced a review of the university application system in February, but this was put on hold due to the coronavirus and will not restart until at least autumn next year.

At the Independent Higher Education 2020 Policy Live conference on 27 October, Ucas chief executive Clare Marchant said that “the conversation needs to start as soon as possible” on post-qualification applications. However, she warned that a new system would need to avoid unintended consequences such as leaving applications unsupported when applying to university.

Commenting on the Sutton Trust report, Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said it showed that the existing admissions system was “not fit for purpose”.

“Allowing students to apply after they receive their results will help level the playing field, remove the problems associated with unconditional offers and end the chaotic clearing scramble,” she said. The UCU has long campaigned for a post-qualification application system to be implemented in the UK.

The Sutton Trust poll, carried out by market research firm YouthSight in September, surveyed 502 of this year’s university applicants.