Post-qualification admissions: why now and what next for UK?

Experts urge careful consideration of detailed options and their consequences, as education secretary sets out direction of travel

November 20, 2020
Next steps the sector must decide which model of PQAs to implement.
Source: Getty

In the end, all it took was a few days for England to set itself firmly on the route to adopting post-qualification admissions (PQA).

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary in the Westminster government, indicated that he wanted students to choose their preferred university only when they have received their exam grades, in the same week that vice-chancellors, through Universities UK (UUK), and the sector admissions service, Ucas, had indicated that they were prepared to move away from the current system of applications based on predicted results.

After years of deliberation, what has changed now? Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, said the evidence in favour of PQA had “become more compelling”.

The inaccuracy of predicted grades has long been known, but growing numbers of studies have demonstrated that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are particularly likely to have their likely scores underestimated. Other research has shown that less privileged students are much more likely than their more affluent classmates to “under-match” and apply for courses with lower entry requirements than their actual grades – suggesting that the current system is a brake on the drive to widen access to higher education.

Meanwhile, criticism of some universities’ widespread use of unconditional offers has mounted amid concern that trying to lock students into a place before they get results might pressure them to join a course that might not be their best option, and might lead to their underachieving in their exams.

But Professor Elliot Major suggested that the cancellation of A-level exams this year and the chaotic admissions cycle that followed might have tipped the debate firmly in favour of PQA.

“The Covid pandemic has thrown up into the air some of the once-untouchable pillars of the education system: the timing of annual school exams and the start of the university year. Once-sceptical elite universities have added their backing to the reform as they look to ways to diversify their student intakes, adding to a growing groundswell of support,” he said.

“Reform would sweep away the barriers, from poor advice to low expectations, that for too long have stymied the prospects of poorer students.”

Even if the direction of travel now seems clear, much remains to be decided. A multiplicity of consultations – by the Department for Education, UUK, Ucas and the English regulator, the Office for Students – are now set to examine the issue. In a UK-wide higher education system, what happens in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is a key question.

Perhaps most pressingly, though, the sector will have to settle on which model of PQA to adopt. The most radical option, one of two put forward by Ucas, would delay the start of the application process until after exam results had been released and would push the start of the first year of university back, potentially as far as the following January.

This was discounted in UUK’s review, which found that it would lead to “a possibly unmanageable overhaul to secondary education timetabling, exam sitting and exam marking”, and harm the UK’s international competitiveness.

At the moment, an alternative system of “post-qualification offers” (PQO), under which students would apply using their predicted grades but would not receive their offers until after their results, seems more likely. Under this system, universities could reject or record an initial assessment of applications before results day.

Anna Vignoles, professor of education at the University of Cambridge, said PQO was “the more feasible option”.

“There are some advantages in students ‘going shopping’ before the qualification is awarded. The advantage of moving to PQO is you remove some of that uncertainty,” she said.

Mary Curnock Cook, who championed PQA when she was chief executive of Ucas and then abandoned the plan in the face of opposition from schools and universities, said PQO needed careful consideration.

“Students would still need some kind of predicted grades so they know where to direct their applications, and I need convincing that hearing nothing from universities until results day, apart from rejections, would be good for student motivation and aspiration,” she said.

There are also concerns that reforming the admissions calendar could lead to universities reducing their use of contextual offers for disadvantaged students, which take account of the fact that students’ grades reflect their educational and familial background, whenever they are awarded.

“It’s important that we don’t make exam grades the centrepiece of admissions reform at a time when universities are getting better at more holistic and contextual evaluation of applications,” Ms Curnock Cook said.

Both Ms Curnock Cook and Professor Vignoles emphasised the need to carefully consider the next step.

Professor Vignoles urged “that we do not change [the system] in response to current events, that we change it for the right reasons, carefully, with considered planning and with enough notice to exam boards, if we require them to do anything differently, and to universities”.

Ms Curnock Cook said the positive aspects of the current system should not be overlooked. She asked: “Is a massive overhaul of the university admissions system the right response when supporting schools to reduce the small proportion of under-predicted grades might be a less disruptive solution?”


Print headline: Route to post-qualification admissions set for England

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