‘No silver bullet’ to fix English admissions system, sector warns

Commentators welcome chance to review admissions but warn that OfS proposals could lead to new problems

March 4, 2020
Source: Getty

Sector experts have warned that the English regulator’s review of university admissions is unlikely to find a single silver bullet that will fix the system.

Commentators widely agreed that England’s system needed attention, but many expressed concern that the wide-ranging proposals put forth by the Office for Students (OfS) could simply lead to a host of new problems.

The OfS has launched an official consultation as part of its admissions review, with the aim of addressing the increasingly contentious issue of unconditional offers, how to boost widening access through contextual offers and how to bring greater clarity to the system.

The review, aimed at universities, sector bodies, staff, students and schools, sets out three options: retaining the current system but with reforms; post-qualification offers, meaning 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 idea of abolishing the practice of making university offers using predicted grades has been debated in England for years, with proponents insisting it is fairer to disadvantaged students, who are often underpredicted.

Greg Walker, chief executive of the MillionPlus group of universities, said it was right that the sector and the regulator “are taking a forensic look at this area, but it is worth noting that there is no ‘easy option’ or panacea in this space for prospective students, schools or universities”.

There are significant downsides to each of the three options, he added. “People tend to focus on the implications for universities, but any major change to the application system would have just as great an effect on schools, colleges and those designing and awarding Level 3 qualifications. This is a neglected dimension,” he said.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, agreed. “The reason the system hasn’t changed already is that there are disadvantages [to PQA] too,” he said. “It looks very simple but, when you dive deeper into it, the difficult issues are there.”

previous review of admissions, published in 2013, found that the system would result in significant changes to school timetables, such as moving A levels forward and running the applications process throughout the school holidays, he said.

Mr Hillman added that any changes from the review would need to “future-proof” against demographic changes, as much of the admissions behaviour – such as the rise in unconditional offers – was a response to the current dip in the UK’s 18-year-old population.

He also warned that it would be hard to push changes through because the autonomy of universities in admissions is enshrined in law.

Susanna Kalitowski, head of policy at the University Alliance, agreed that the autonomy of universities was important. “Different universities take a different approach, and this is a chance to highlight what is working,” she said.

The review is a “really useful opportunity for the sector to reflect and gather evidence”, but “any new system has to be fair, with no unintended consequences”, she said.

Graeme Atherton, director of the National Education Opportunities Network, said the worry was that the review would find “a consensus for tinkering with the status quo” rather than the “significant and wide-ranging change” that is needed.

“This would be another missed opportunity for the sector to show that it is aware of the views of students, schools and colleges and would only reinforce the disconnection between higher education and wider society, which many in politics and wider society believe exists,” he said.


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Reader's comments (3)

Is there any other country which uses predicted grades? If the majority of the world manages admissions without them, I cannot see why PQA poses such a problem for the U.K.
Countries who do not use predicted grades for university entry have separated university entry tests from other qualifications, which increases the examination burden on prospective students, e.g. in the US, students are required to sit SATs as well as complete the requirements for high school graduation. One option is to defer the application cycle to the following year, in effect forcing a gap year on applicants. This can be spent on voluntary work, gainful employment to get work experience and save for university, or travel, as done by those who chose to defer entry and take a conventional gap year. There's also a potential for widening the scope of youth citizen service to occupy part or all of the year... or indeed for students to take additional qualifications or do resits if they have underperformed.
PQA doesn't remove unconditional offers - universities can admit whomever they like using whatever process they like. Applications aren't centralised and UCAS is not the only route - students can apply directly to university. There's nothing to stop a university signing up next years students at open days etc. even within the proposed PQA systems.