Autonomy fears over government review of English admissions

Commentators question value of exercise when Augar review has yet to report and Office for Students is already exploring issue

April 8, 2019
Source: Getty
Easy access? the chief executive of MillionPlus said that universities were ‘best qualified to judge who can benefit from the opportunity to study in higher education’

Sector leaders have warned that the Westminster government’s “comprehensive” review of English university admission policies must not infringe on institutional autonomy.

Damian Hinds, the education secretary, said on 5 April that he would ask the Office for Students to conduct the review. The move was apparently triggered by concerns about the use of “conditional unconditional” offers, which become unconditional only when an applicant selects the university as their firm choice. The review’s terms of reference are yet to be announced.

But Mr Hinds said that he was also “concerned about the wider picture of how some universities are getting students through their doors”, and the Department for Education said that there would be a focus on widening participation. The OfS would, Mr Hinds said, “look at how well current admissions practices serve students and how they can be improved, so we can protect the integrity of our higher education system”.

The review has been launched before the publication of the results of the review of post-18 education funding in England, led by Philip Augar, which could have a major impact on admissions. Universities have expressed particular concern about a potential proposal to, in effect, prevent students with lower grades from entering higher education by restricting student loan access.

Greg Walker, chief executive of MillionPlus, the association of modern universities, said that universities were “best qualified to judge who can benefit from the opportunity to study in higher education”.

“Universities take their responsibility for admissions seriously, while their autonomy in doing so has rightly been protected by Parliament,” he said. Institutions’ prerogative “to determine the criteria for the admission of students” forms part of the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act.

“University admissions practices are something that the OfS [states it is] examining already in relation to [its] regulatory responsibilities…Ahead of this evidence gathering, we should not assume that any particular practice is generally unacceptable,” Mr Walker said.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, while noting that he disliked conditional unconditional offers because of the undue pressure they placed on students, agreed that “universities have a right to autonomy in admissions, and that is enshrined in regulation”.

Mr Hillman said that it would have been more helpful to wait until the Augar review was published. “The spate of unconditional offers is more a reflection of competition within the sector,” Mr Hillman added. “Collective action may be needed, but I am against ministerial intervening in university autonomy.”

The review is likely to be seized on by supporters of a shift towards a system of post-qualifications applications, in which students apply to university after they have received their grades. It may also lead to increased pressure on universities to use contextual admissions, under which students from disadvantaged backgrounds are admitted with lower entry grades than their more privileged peers.

Amatey Doku, vice-president (higher education) of the National Union of Students, said he “welcomed” the review but added that what higher education needed was a sustainable funding system that “doesn’t require universities to compete and take drastic steps to recruit vast student numbers in order to stay afloat”.

The review of admissions practices was the latest in a series of interventions from Mr Hinds, after announcements on grade inflation and essay mills, seen by some as an attempt to assert his control over universities in the Department for Education, ahead of the publication of the Augar review.

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