Should the higher education admissions system be based on known qualifications rather than predicted grades? There are two key aspects to consider. First, the extent to which such a process might be possible and manageable. And second, whether such a reform is desirable and beneficial for universities, colleges and applicants.
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service will examine the first of these as part of a comprehensive and independent review of admissions processes. If we determine that post-qualifications applications is a viable system, we will consult the sector on the second.
The opportunity to review the admissions process emerged in September 2010, when the Ucas board approved a new five-year strategy. Among other things, it acknowledged the need for a complete overhaul of our technology platform, which was built in 2004 and has been modified and patched up to respond to changing needs. As we are going to be rebuilding the technology, it made sense to examine the admissions processes at the same time. This was becoming more urgent in a post-Browne era in England and to take account of changes taking place concurrently in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
In 1961, a group of vice-chancellors set up the Universities Central Council on Admissions. Since then, the sector has experienced significant growth (see graph below). From a pool of about 50,000 applicants and 20,000 accepts in 1962, Ucas handled nearly 700,000 applicants and 480,000 accepts in 2010.
A glance at an early Ucca rule book (1963 was the earliest I could find) shows that the process, although now automated and online, has barely changed in decades. What has changed, however, is the diversity of applicants, the qualifications they present, the courses to which they apply and the institutions that offer them.
The robustness of the Ucas system in the face of such change is testament to the vision of the vice-chancellors who designed the system half a century ago. But there are many signs that the process may not be fit for the future as the sector gears up for fundamental changes that are anticipated under new charging and funding regimes, the integration of part-time provision into mainstream funding in England, and more flexible and learner-driven provision.
To date, Ucas has offered a one-size-fits-all solution with which institutional members and applicants have had to comply. In the future, in order to maintain the valued centralised admissions service, it is likely that we will need to build a more flexible system that can meet different needs within the sector - for example, different intensities of study, different start dates and the specialist needs of some courses such as medicine. We have also been asked to consider whether Ucas might incorporate the "front end" of a future student finance application within its process.
One oft-cited fault in the current system is the insurance or backup choice, which was originally designed as a backstop for those who failed to achieve their predicted qualification grades. Ucas research shows that as many as 40 per cent of applicants (mainly 17- to 19-year-olds) hold insurance choices with conditions that are harder than, or at the same level as, their main choice, indicating that applicants are using the insurance choice not as a backstop but as a second option. Many (but not all) in the sector are urging a rethink of the insurance choice, although schools and colleges will be wary of narrowing their candidates' options.
We are also aware that many advisers urge their applicants to take full advantage of their five choices, and this results in many empty applications (which still get processed by the target institution) and rejected offers. Of the 210,000 applicants who - as the headlines lamented - "missed out" in 2010, 97,000 had offers that they rejected or voluntarily withdrew from the process.
The predicted grade/conditional offer system, which was manageable in the early years, now creates a significant process burden on the sector. The process of using a student's predicted grades to manage their applications involves six steps over a period of up to 10 months: students have to receive their predicted grades, get a conditional offer from higher education institutions, accept or decline their offer, receive their real results, have their offer confirmed by their university or college, and then finally accept or decline the offer. If an insurance choice comes into play, the process is even longer.
Using known qualifications, the process is considerably more straightforward, with only three steps - actual grades, an offer from higher education institutions and the offer accepted or declined by the applicant - over a much shorter time.
In addition, the conditional offer system hides multiple additional transactions that take place as higher education institutions use judgement and statistical modelling to second-guess the predicted grades of their applicants and make multiple offers for each place, depending on their competitive positioning. Of the 2010 UK-domiciled applicant cohort, about 60 per cent, or 360,000, made pre-qualification applications, with an overall acceptance rate of 77 per cent. About two-thirds of these were A-level candidates.
In our review of the admissions process, we will research the needs of applicants and higher education institutions to assess whether there are more efficient ways of designing the process and stripping out nugatory transactions. This may mean that we test the extent to which a post-qualifications applications process could deliver benefits as one of a number of options to be considered.
It remains for the sector and those representing applicants to decide whether such a change will support fairer access and improved participation in higher education across the UK. The board has asked Rama Thirunamachandran, deputy vice-chancellor and provost at Keele University, to chair the steering group for the review. We are also in the process of setting up our project team within Ucas and have written to members asking for their involvement.
Ucas' role is to serve its stakeholders. The challenge for our review is to present viable options for an improved shared admissions service. The debate must be about a process that best serves the needs of applicants and institutions, not a bipolar consideration of pre- or post-qualifications applications in a system conceived five decades ago in a vastly different educational landscape.