Short summer admissions process ‘feasible’ for UK, ministers say

Option is put forward alongside post-qualification offers as one of two potential reforms

一月 21, 2021
Source: iStock

A proposal for UK university applications to be made in just a few weeks over the summer is one of two “feasible” options that the Westminster government says it is putting forward to overhaul higher education admissions.

The post-qualification applications option, which the government believes could still allow university terms to start in October, appears in its consultation on changing admissions launched alongside a raft of other policy papers on the future of the sector.

Universities themselves have been moving towards preferring a system of “post-qualification offers”, where applications are still made before exam results but institutions offer places after grades are known.

This idea forms the other option being put forward in the consultation, which argues that a general move to post-qualification admissions (PQA) “could address some of the challenges posed by the current HE admissions system: namely, that it is complex, lacks transparency, works against the interests of some students, and encourages undesirable admissions practices”.

The document lays out the familiar arguments for changing the current system, where students apply on the basis of predicted grades and receive offers before A-level results day, including that it is detrimental to those from poorer backgrounds.

In a foreword, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, says that “if we were starting from scratch today, we would not design the higher education admissions system we have now – a system which, with its reliance on predicted grades, is complex, lacks transparency [and] works against the interests of some students”.

However, the consultation still stops short of saying that the system will definitely change, asking for respondents to indicate their satisfaction with the current system and whether they would like a “form" of PQA in “principle”.

It goes on to say that to “probe delivery further”, it had set out “two illustrative models for a PQA system, which we believe are most feasible based on our analysis to date”.

The document says the proposal for post-qualification applications would allow “at least six weeks” between an exam results day in late July and offer-making in September for applications to be processed.

However, such an idea is likely to be unpopular with some in the sector and, especially, with schools, which the document acknowledges would probably have to deal with a “compressed” exams timetable and support university applications over a period when teachers and pupils would normally be on a summer break.

Another option to adopt post-qualification applications, but with a timetable that would see university terms start in January, has already been discounted by vice-chancellors and is also ruled out by the consultation as something that was not being “specifically considered”.

One particular sentence may also cause eye-rolling for those in the sector who have seen previous attempts to reform admissions abandoned in the face of seemingly unsurmountable administrative problems for universities and schools.

“We are aware that despite the potential benefits of PQA, the challenges we may face in implementation may result in the policy being unviable,” the document warns.

It does, however, add that the consultation, which will run until May with a government response in the summer, had the backing of all the UK’s devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which could smooth the transition to any changes.

“Once we have received and analysed all of the responses to this consultation, we will work together with the devolved administrations to ensure that students will experience a system that is easy to navigate and transparent, no matter where in the UK they are from or intend to study,” it says.

Mary Curnock Cook, who oversaw a previous attempt to consider PQA as head of the admissions service Ucas, said the consultation did “not contain the detailed modelling of process and impact for all the stakeholders in the delicate university admissions ecosystem, so I suspect that the consultation might raise more questions than it answers”.

She also questioned the assumption “that stopping using predicted grades in the university application process will level the playing field for disadvantaged applicants”. 

“This assumption needs much more thorough testing before jumping through the consultation hoops about the complex, multifaceted and risky process changes proposed,” she said.

Ms Curnock Cook added that a “better place to start” on admissions reform might be to make sure state school pupils had similar access to support in making university applications as those in independent schools benefitted from.



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