November term start proposed for post-qualification applications

University and College Union revives call for admissions shake-up in hope of making unconditional offers ‘defunct’

January 14, 2019
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Crashing out: a post-qualifications admissions system could reduce the poor outcomes related to unconditional offers

First-year undergraduates could start their courses in November under a post-qualification applications system in the UK that would make unconditional offers “defunct” and could “eliminate the need for clearing”, according to the University and College Union.

A UCU paper published on 14 January outlines a vision for how a PQA system could work for school-leavers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and calls for the government to establish an “independent review of the admissions system which can advance the ideas outlined in this paper”.

It follows previous UCU reports assembling evidence about the deficiencies of the pre-qualification application status quo, which relies on predicted grades. One of those reports, by Gill Wyness, senior lecturer at the UCL Institute of Education, found that just 16 per cent of applicants’ grades were predicted accurately, with 24 per cent of AAB applicants from the lowest-income backgrounds underpredicted compared with 20 per cent of peers from the highest-income backgrounds.

The new report, authored by Graeme Atherton of the National Education Opportunities Network and UCU policy officer Angela Nartey, proposes a system in which applicants would make “expressions of interest” to up to 12 institutions in the January of the year of application. There would then be an application week in the first week of August, after students have received their A-level results, with students able to apply for up to eight courses.

Students “will receive their decisions in the third week of September and applicants will be placed by the end of September”, the report says.

“It is anticipated the combination of admissions based on actual rather than predicted grades and a larger number of courses selected should reduce or possibly eliminate the need for a ‘clearing’ phase,” the paper adds.

“The start of academic year one will be the first week of November,” it continues, saying this would bring “a number of advantages”. These would include allowing universities to make the period from mid-October a “pre-reading period” to help first-year students prepare for their courses and giving institutions “an excellent opportunity to try innovative new approaches to preparing students for higher education study”.

The report highlights recent “uncontrolled growth” in unconditional offers, which “unethically sway the student decision making process” and “are associated with poorer student outcomes”, it says.

In a PQA system, “unconditional offers become defunct”, it adds.

The last attempt to switch to a post-qualification admissions system, proposed by Ucas, was ditched in 2012 after opposition from universities, which said that they would struggle to process applications in a short period over the summer holidays.

Asked why things should be different now, Ms Nartey told Times Higher Education that there was now “increasing recognition the system isn’t working. Lots of sector representatives are really concerned about this growing use of unconditional offers.”

And an “increase in competition” for students between universities following the abolition of student number controls “means an increase in the likelihood that students are not necessarily enabled to make the best decisions for themselves”, she added.

Ms Nartey said that the UCU’s members were “passionate about education, passionate about life chances and the best outcomes for students”, but “concerned that the [current] system doesn’t deliver these things to the best of its ability”.

Poorer students are “more likely to be underpredicted than better-off peers”, thus “limiting their choice of institutions” and having a “potential impact on socio-economic stratification across universities”, she added.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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