Post-qualification admissions plan ‘abandoned’ in England

Sector sources suggest PQA plan dropped after Williamson exit, although others think alternative changes still under consideration

February 11, 2022
Pupils receive their GCSE results
Source: Getty

The Westminster government appears to have abandoned plans to make students apply to English universities after receiving their exam results, several sector sources have suggested, though others believe alternative options for change could still be brought forward.

Department for Education officials have indicated that post-qualification admissions (PQA) is no longer a priority, while a team in the department working on planned legislation has been disbanded, according to some.

Gavin Williamson, in his time as education secretary, wanted to move towards a system where students choose their university place after they get their grades in A levels and equivalent qualifications, warning that current arrangements were “letting down the brightest pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds” by relying on predicted grades.

The DfE ran a consultation on PQA, which closed in May 2021 – but it is yet to issue a response to that consultation.

The mood may have been changed by the sacking of Mr Williamson in September 2021 and his replacement by Nadhim Zahawi.

Nick Hillman, Higher Education Policy Institute director and former adviser to a Conservative universities minister, said of PQA: “I do think it’s sinking down the agenda quite fast and may soon exit the plughole.

“Gavin Williamson supported it but he’s gone…And there is no longer enough time to implement a smooth alternative admissions process before the next election. Politicians will question whether it is worth spending the political capital to implement a major policy that is unlikely to win them many – or any? – new votes.”

Jonathan Simons, head of the education practice at political consultancy Public First, and a former senior policy adviser on education in Number 10, said: “My guess is that once again it hasn’t been possible to square the various conflicting demands of teachers, exam boards, and universities – to the detriment of young people who might have been able to get a more suitable place if they had applied knowing their results.

“It may also be a consequence of further delays to the DfE’s HE priorities, with still no sign of the final delayed response to [the] Augar [review], and a heavily congested parliamentary timetable due to Covid and Brexit.”

A DfE spokesman said that the department would respond to the PQA consultation “in due course”.

Others in the sector suggest that the DfE will still want to announce some form of change, such as post-qualification offers (PQO), under which prospective students would apply at the same time as at present but receive firm offers only after they learn their results.

Universities UK said in its response to the PQA consultation that “a form of” PQO “has the potential to increase fairness for students while still ensuring universities can continue to deliver an efficient and effective admissions process”.

But while PQO was “preferable” to PQA, it would still “require some fundamental adjustments to truly improve fairness and transparency for students”, UUK said.

Mr Hillman thought that PQO also seemed unlikely: “You’ve still got the problem of having to implement a new system at the worst possible point in the political cycle. In the last two years of a parliament, you look for vote-winning policies.”

Mary Curnock Cook, the former Ucas chief executive, said: “It wouldn’t be surprising if PQA has dropped down the policy agenda as any move to PQA or even PQO is a major systemic change involving running the complex admissions process off achieved grades rather than predicted grades.

“Trying to do this at a time when grading approaches are themselves unstable following the pandemic disruptions significantly increases the risks associated with such a move.” 

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: England’s PQA plan ‘abandoned’

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Reader's comments (2)

This highlights the structural issues around allowing political interference in the way that higher education operates. What business is it of theirs how we make our offers to prospective students? Without agreements between universities, examining bodies, and post-16 educators any form of PQA is unworkable. The question is, do we want to make these changes, what benefits would they bring? What issues would they cause? It would require examinations to be held earlier in the year, to allow for time for marking, so that students, armed with results, can then decide where to apply in good time for their applications to be processed by September. But do we want to examine them earlier - should an A-level be only one and a half years long rather than 2 years? Or should a 'gap year' become mandatory? Many traditional gap year activities aren't conductive to navigating one's way through university applications at the same time. Not all students want to take a year out of education anyway, or can afford to do so. There's no guarantee that they can find work to support themselves. But these are all arguments for the stakeholders to consider, not politiians who, rightly or wrongly, are more interested in the next election rather than the well-being of students. It's interesting too, to see the lack of one voice amongst those cited above. The 'Office for Students' doesn't seem to have anything to offer, thus adding to the general feeling that they are a complete waste of space and have nothing worthwhile to contribute to the management of higher education.
How on earth other countries' universities manage to still have students using a post-qualifications admission sytem is truly unbelievable. They are clearly not as good as our universities.

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