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UUK calls for shift to post-qualification admissions

Image: Tero Vesalainen, via Shutterstock

Vice-chancellors’ group outlines proposals to overhaul the university application process

The UK should move to a full post-qualification admissions system by the 2023-24 academic year, a major review of the university application process has recommended.

According to the Fair Admissions Review, carried out by Universities UK (UUK), institutions should only be able to offer places once applicants have received their examination results. Currently, prospective students apply to university using predicted grades, with institutions able to offer them a place before those grades are confirmed—although there exists some post-admissions application via the “adjustment” and “clearing” processes.

The review, carried out between June 2019 and November this year, also recommends an end to the use of “conditional unconditional” offers, which see applicants offered a place on the condition that they make that university their firm first choice.

It comes after admissions body Ucas published its own proposals to shake up the admissions system, which include a post-qualification application system. 

Elsewhere, UUK calls for universities to “take a more proactive approach to identifying and addressing key admissions challenges and criticisms”, which should include the development of a “code of practice”, with sanctions for those institutions found to be in breach of the code.

The proposed changes—outlined in full below—will be implemented in stages, UUK says, with longer-term changes subject to an additional consultation with the higher education sector. 

‘Fair for all’

Quintin McKellar, vice-chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire and chair of the Fair Admissions Review, said there was “a shared will across the education sector to ensure that admissions are fair for all”.

“On the whole university admissions are seen as fair, but the principles guiding universities should be updated to make it clear that offer-making and practices must always operate in the best interests of students,” McKellar said. “This means there should be no place for the use of conditional unconditional offers because they can put students under undue pressure.”

McKellar added that there was not “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 post-qualification admissions must be taken forward carefully by universities, with further consultation with students, government, and those working across the education sector,” he said.

BAME disparity

As part of the review, UUK polled about 1,500 recent university applicants. Seventy per cent said that they felt the current applications and admissions process was fair, while 28 per cent said they did not believe the system was working well in its current state. Black, Asian and minority ethnic applicants were significantly less likely to describe the admissions process as fair compared with white applicants (62 per cent versus 73 per cent).

Almost two-thirds of applicants (64 per cent) said they think it is fine to apply with predicted grades, with more than half of those polled (56 per cent) feeling that universities an should only make offers after people have received their academic results.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said the current UK admissions system was “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,” she said.

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, vice-president for higher education at the National Union of Students, said the recommendations should “make for a much fairer admissions system”.

“The wider use of contextual admissions will be vital for levelling the playing field between students from a wealth of backgrounds, and we want to see a system put in place which prioritises the achievement of those who face multiple barriers to higher education,” Gyebi-Ababio said.

Improving transparency

Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students—which has delayed its own review of admissions until autumn 2021—said post-qualification admissions could “help improve transparency in contextual admissions and other entry requirements”. But he warned that it was “not a magic bullet for fair access”.

“There is widespread recognition that aspects of the current system are not working,” Millward continued. “For example, research suggests that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to receive under-predicted A-level grades.

“We have also temporarily banned ‘conditional unconditional’ offers during the pandemic due to the pressure that they can put on students to make choices which may not be in their best interests.”


Recommendations in full

The review recommends that universities and colleges should:

  • Abide by a set of updated admissions principles on fairness and transparency.
  • Ensure admissions and offers are made in the best interests of students, without limiting ambition or adversely influencing course choices.
  • Be ambitious in ensuring that admissions practices address inequalities in access and participation, including greater transparency in the use of contextual admissions.
  • Improve the level of transparency of information and guidance for applicants to support aspiration-raising.

The review also recommends that:

  • Ucas should progress with a series of planned reforms to improve fairness and transparency in admissions.
  • Governments must support fairness and transparency in admissions.
  • The higher education sector should take a more proactive approach to identifying and addressing key admissions challenges and criticisms.
  • Further consideration should be given to a reformed undergraduate admissions system based on a Post-Qualifications
  • Admissions model whereby applicants do not receive offers until their exam or assessment results are known.