England’s regulator consults on post-qualification admissions

As part of its admissions review, OfS also proposes options that could spell the end of unconditional offers and personal statements

February 27, 2020
Two yellow 'Admit one' tickets

England’s sector regulator has suggested that abolishing the practice of making university offers using predicted grades could be one of the ways to create a fairer admissions system.  

The proposal for a post-qualification admissions system is one option in the Office for Students’ consultation on England’s undergraduate higher education admissions, which forms part of a wider-ranging review of admissions launched by the government in 2019.

The consultation sets out three options: retaining the current system but with reforms, which could include looking at how to improve contextual offers and whether personal statements should be scrapped; post-qualification offers, so students apply as they do now but do not receive offers until after their results, thereby eliminating unconditional offers; and post-qualification admissions (PQA).

The goal of the consultation is to ensure England has “a reliable, fair and inclusive admissions system”, according to the OfS. It said that potential respondents, including university leaders and staff, sector bodies, students, parents and schools, were also welcome to provide their own suggestions.

The idea of implementing a PQA system in England has been in discussion for years, particularly championed by the University and College Union, which says that such a system would be fairer for students and bring the country in line with the rest of the world.

Proponents of PQA have said that it would also help eliminate unconditional offers and particularly help disadvantaged students who are less likely to be predicted the top grades. A 2016 UCU report found 24 per cent of AAB applicants from the lowest-income backgrounds had their grades under-predicted, compared with 20 per cent of peers from the highest-income backgrounds.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said that the review was “the opportunity for us to finally move to a system where university offers are based on actual achievement rather than unreliable estimates of potential”.

The PQA option, if implemented, is likely to mean that the timings of different parts of the education system would need to change, according to the consultation.

The OfS said that it took a neutral stance on the way forward, but has in the past taken a view on the widespread use of unconditional offers and conditional unconditional offers, which it said was akin to “pressure selling”, and called for elite institutions to go much further on contextual admissions.

The option for a post-qualification offers system, which would tackle the issue of conditional offers, would eliminate the problem of time constraints that a PQA system would create, as applicants still make their applications within the academic year, according to the consultation.

Alongside the three options for admissions systems, the OfS highlighted other issues that it wanted to look at. These included how to increase contextual admissions, looking into whether personal statements are necessary, and bringing greater clarity around entry requirements to address the discrepancy between advertised and actual entry criteria.

The review will also look at how to tackle inappropriate marketing and inducements that could mislead students at a time when they may be “especially vulnerable”.

The OfS review is being carried out at the same time as Universities UK carries out its own “major review” of admissions, which is expected to issue recommendations in the spring, while Ucas is also exploring reforms to admissions. The OfS said that it would “look to work closely” with both.

Michael Barber, chair of the OfS, said “there is widespread recognition that certain aspects of the current admissions system are not working, and may be especially unfair on students from disadvantaged backgrounds”.

The consultation is a “genuine attempt” to seek the views of a wide range of respondents, he said, but admitted that any changes to the admissions system would be complex.

“They will require the agreement of policymakers, universities and colleges, examination boards and schools – and will need to demonstrably be in the interests of future students,” he said. “We want to use our powers to convene, to consult and to discuss how we can arrive at a system of admissions where the interests of all students are paramount.”

Claire Sosienski Smith, National Union of Students vice-president for higher education, said “it has been clear that for some time the admissions system has not been working in the interest of students, so it is good to see that the OfS is taking action. The NUS hopes the OfS will look seriously at post-qualification applications.”

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

The use of predicted grades should had been abolished long ago - a national embarrassment to use an invalid index for HE admissions.
The problem with a "post-qualification admissions" system is that it assumes that examination grades are a realiable and valuable indicator of undergraduate potential. In some disciplines, especially in the arts and humanities, this is simply not the case, especially at élite level (because even the ostensibly "academic" Level 3 qualifications, such as A-levels, are sometimes so dumbed-down as to end-up rewarding those who regurgitate the ideas and paradigms in the revision guide rather than those who are willing to be a bit more original and creative in their thinking). Another problem with such a system is that it leaves the prospective student far less time to prepare for the course. Under the current system, the applicant will know where he/she will probably be enrolling 5–9 months in advance (assuming no gap year), and can thus start preparing himself/herself accordingly (I trust that universities still write to offer-holders with advice about this?), and figure out matters such as accommodation without too much pressure. Better that a prospective student gets a realistic evaluation as to whether he/she has the potential to succeed on a given course *before* his/her A-level or equivalent examinations, rather than hold false hope and be disappointed upon rejection despite outstanding grades, or, worse, be admitted to a course for which he/she manifestly (from the perspective of any admissions tutor who actually looks at the application) lacks acumen. Unfortunately, most universities are not willing to expend the person-hours required to evaluate applicants properly as individual people rather than a set of data (ideally, this process should involve not only a personal statement but also an open-ended interview, something which some courses/institutions still do).

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