V-cs back ‘post-qualification offers’ admissions system for UK

Vice-chancellors say confirming offers after results day would increase ‘fairness for applicants’, with switch proposed for 2023

November 13, 2020
Celebrating exam results
Source: iStock

Students applying to UK universities should not receive their offers until after they have their results, vice-chancellors have recommended.

Under the plans, proposed by Universities UK (UUK), students would apply to university using their predicted grades but would not receive their offers until after their results.

UUK’s Fair Admissions Review, published on 13 November, says that the change to a “workable, implementable” post-qualification offers system “would enhance transparency and fairness for applicants”.

The new system should be implemented for the 2023-24 academic year, the review says, but added that further consultation with the sector was needed.

The model would see applicants “curate” their course choices between September and June, during which universities could continue to hold assessments and auditions and either reject an applicant or record an initial assessment. After universities received the results in August, they would have a week to validate decisions before “offer day”.

Criticism of the current system has grown due to the inaccuracy of predicted grades, the rising use of clearing and the problems with conditional and unconditional offers.

Post-qualification offers would reduce the importance of predicted grades and end the need for unconditional offers, UUK says. It would also provide more clarity over entry requirements and give applicants more time to make a choice without it interfering in the run up to exams.  

The UK’s admissions service Ucas also recently put forward alternative options to the current system. One option echoed UUK’s preferred choice of post-qualification offers, while the other suggested the whole applications process would start after students had received their grades, with the start of the academic year pushed back to January.

UUK’s review also considered full post-qualification admissions but concludes that it would lead to “a possibly unmanageable overhaul to secondary education timetabling, exam sitting and exam marking”.

Although such a system would be particularly helpful to disadvantaged students, who are consistently underpredicted, UUK says it could also cause a lack of connection between applicants and institutions until the results were received. Shifting the start of the academic year to January could have implications for the UK higher education sector’s international competitiveness, UUK adds.

The review also looked at post-qualification decisions, where applications and offers are made before applicants receive their results but students only accept afterwards. This option was dismissed because although it would reduce pressure on applicants and could be implemented fairly quickly, it would not address the issues around unconditional offers or predicted grades.

UUK admits that post-qualification offers may create challenges for highly selective courses, and could lead to increasing use of admissions tests. In addition, fewer teachers are available over the summer to support applicants.

However, the review concludes that this model “represents a fair and workable option for applicants”.

There was no consensus among staff at higher education providers consulted for the review about which of the three options should be adopted, but students were supportive of the post-qualification offers model, UUK says.

Quintin McKellar, vice-chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire, who chaired the review, acknowledged that there “isn’t a perfect one-size-fits-all solution for the variety of courses and institutions, but the review has decided it would be fairer for students to receive university places based on exam results, not predictions”.

“Any change to [post-qualification admissions] must be taken forward carefully by universities, with further consultation with students, government and those working across the education sector. We need to be confident that any new process will allow for effective careers advice and support for applicants,” Professor McKellar said.

The UUK review also says that universities should end their use of so-called “conditional unconditional” offers, under which an offer is made unconditional if a student selects it as their firm choice. Concerns have been raised that this puts undue pressure on applicants and may lead to them making a choice that is not best for them.

England’s regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), said it would “consider UUK’s proposals very carefully”. The OfS does have its own admissions review, but this was paused in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

University and College Union general secretary Jo Grady said the union was “glad Universities UK has joined us in recognising the need to move to a post-qualification university admissions system. The current system is based on inaccurately predicted results and leads to those from less affluent backgrounds losing out.”

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, NUS vice-president for higher education, agreed that the recommendations “should, if implemented fairly and with student interest front and centre, make for a much fairer admissions system”.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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