Until about five years ago, the UK benefited from five decades of long-term stability in university admissions. There was hardly any change at all in the arrangements after the introduction of Ucas – formerly UCCA – in 1961.
Before 1961 there was no centralised system – students applied separately to as many universities as they wished. At the time there was a clear consensus on the need for a single gateway system. Everyone – universities, schools, students – became familiar with the routines of a January deadline for most subjects (earlier for medicine), conditional offers and firm acceptance dates leading up to the mid-August publication of A-level results. A national admissions system combined with central management of student numbers produced overall stability in the sector.
This steady administration and processes makes the changes of the last half-decade all the more striking.
Quite different things have combined to transform arrangements. First, the decade-long decline in the number of 18-year-olds means that there will be some 20 per cent fewer 18-year-olds in 2022 than there were in 2012.
Second, the removal of student number caps in 2015, in the midst of that demographic decline, has created what is essentially an open market in student recruitment.
Third, universities have become more directly competitive with each other. The resultant volatility in student numbers has created challenges for universities – both for those who have grown rapidly, with strains on systems, accommodation and growing group sizes – and those who have struggled, with impacts on balance sheets.
Many students have learned that university admission is – and will be until 2021 or 2022 – a buyers’ market. As a result, January deadlines for Ucas application have lost significance. Students have recognised that late application – entering the system in June or July through “early Clearing” – does not disadvantage them given that numbers are uncapped.
They have understood that adjustment – looking for an offer from a more selective course of study – is possible quite late in the process.
A good deal of this activity is a consequence of high levels of unreliability in students’ predicted grades, which turn out to be wrong in about a fifth of cases.
Predicted grades were the currency of the pre-2015 system; they worked for universities as a (rough) guide to expected attainment, with Clearing as the backstop for students who fell short, and they performed a behavioural function for schools and students. It was “something to aim for” which helped to keep study and revision on track.
Universities have responded in rational but controversial ways. Confronted with an essentially open recruitment market, the unreliability of predicted grades and the vast amount of prior attainment data available on candidates, universities have offered a variety of forms of unconditional offers at different tiers of the attainment hierarchy. These approaches have destabilised the traditional admissions cycle.
Both applicants and institutions are keen to maximise advantage. For universities, increasingly this means viewing admissions as a relationship management exercise, using a variety of communications tools to maintain contact with applicants from first engagement. Such approaches matter: given that potential students can move at any point in the process, nurturing a relationship with applicants is one of way in which universities can seek to avoid losing students who may be tempted elsewhere.
Despite these changes, which have opened the system up, there remain sharp critics of the Clearing system. While the market is more open, it is also asymmetric (not all applicants are equally well informed about the choices on offer) and unreliable (predicted grades especially so).
Many critics would like a system of post-qualification admissions, in which application is postponed until after A-level results are published. And almost everyone is in favour of post-qualification admissions – until they explore the detail.
In 2013, an expert task group developed a detailed map of what such a system might look like. It would mean moving A levels forward, which would squeeze teaching time for A levels (unpopular with teachers); it would mean running the entire applications process during the school holidays, which would mean that school staff would be less available to support applicants (almost certainly unfair on less privileged candidates); it would mean moving the start of university term back, which would impact on the shape of the academic year (unpopular with academics).
Finally, and critics of unconditional offers should take note, it would remove the incentive of meeting offer or predicted grades from the whole A-level population. All in all, the practical ramifications have left diminished appetite for change from the admissions tutors, A-level teachers and administrators who would have to make this work.
We are left, then, with an imperfect system: an open recruitment market grafted on to a centrally managed system with multiple and overlapping deadlines.
So much of the way the system operates has been a series of responses to external pressures and change: demographics, student number controls, sharper and more competitive marketisation. In the conversations I have with potential students, the majority understand this.
At some point there will be a need for a root-and-branch review of the way that the entire system operates. The 2013 review showed how difficult that will be: a more perfect system needs to be fit for purpose irrespective of the size of the 18-year-old cohort and the external pressures on universities.
The next shift in dynamic will follow from the very sharp increases in the size of the 18-year-old cohort after 2021: revising current arrangements, imperfect as they are, for a difficult-to-predict system will prove extraordinarily challenging.
Sir Chris Husbands is vice-chancellor at Sheffield Hallam University.
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