UK universities have run out of excuses for not switching to PQA

A post-qualification admissions system will pose logistical challenges, but they must be overcome, says Michelle Morgan

October 19, 2019
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Universities UK’s review of admissions practices in the UK, due to report in the spring, is very timely. But although the review has been prompted by the specific controversy surrounding the increase in unconditional and conditional unconditional offers since the removal of the recruitment cap, it is not the first time that the UK has grappled with the idea of shifting to a post-qualification system.

In 2011 – the year before £9,000 fees were introduced – Ucas also consulted widely on the issue, ultimately coming out against the idea in its 2012 report. That report is still well worth reading – including by UUK’s Advisory Group. Among schools and further education colleges, 56 per cent of respondents favoured PQA, 51 per cent agreed that it would make the process easier to understand and 69 per cent agreed that it would enable applicants to make an aspirational choice as well as a realistic one.

But schools and colleges disagreed with higher education institutions about whether the use of actual as opposed to predicted grades would be fairer: 73 per cent of schools and colleges believed this to be the case, compared with 50 per cent of HEIs.

A full 95 per cent of all respondents argued that university applicants may not understand the importance of contextual data and could be deterred from applying to courses if they missed the grades, while 81 per cent felt that PQA could restrict such offer flexibility anyway. And 65 per cent feared that applicants who took a year out would be unduly advantaged by the allocation of places and accommodation on a first-come-first-served basis.

Meanwhile, only 29 per cent of all respondents believed that an application process compressed into the summer would be viable. Continuing to begin the first term in late October was supported by 77 per cent of schools and colleges, but only 38 per cent of HEIs. And starting in January was rejected by 40 per cent of schools and colleges and 70 per cent of HEIs.

These findings suggest that there was a real lack of desire to change among HEIs. However, since the report was published, the tertiary landscape has changed quite dramatically, and it is essential that these changes are fully considered in the current review.

Massification at undergraduate level has continued, driven by a belief that a degree is now a prerequisite for getting a “worthwhile” job. But competition between universities has been boosted by a decline in domestic 18-year-olds, leading marketing departments to take the lead in recruitment practices.

Moreover, some HEIs have centralised their admission systems to save money, fuelling a tendency to send out unconditional offers quickly, but also conditional ones based on predicted grades alone, which are then sometimes converted into conditional unconditional offers (the condition being that the applicant lists the university as their first choice) after an interview or portfolio review.

Meanwhile, the introduction of the £9,000 tuition fee has fundamentally changed applicant expectations, so it is not a surprise that the Office of the Independent Adjudicator has seen an increase in complaints. A wrong choice by a student, influenced by an HEI, can leave them with nothing to show for a huge amount of debt.

However, the increase in semesterised modularity means that January and February – the traditional window for assessing applications – are now pressure points for marking and exam boards, so turnaround of students’ applications is problematic.

We need more joined-up thinking about how we can adapt the timelines for a PQA system. Institutions need to rethink what we do and how we do it. A PQA system will not remove offers based on achieved grades alone, so we need to clearly state that contextual offers may also be made to applicants who don’t meet the state grade threshold. But processing these requires time to be built into the process.

In addition, we should actively encourage students to take a year out to reflect on what they want to do. It can change their direction and also have a massive impact on their learning approach. In turn, it can impact on the all-important metrics by which we are judged. Despite the obvious temptation to pursue enrolments at all costs, we need to support students to make good choices that are right for them: this will support the foundations of retention, progression, attainment and success that feed into the metrics. 

Most of all, as a sector, we have to stop finding reasons not to change. Finding solutions is the only way to ensure that we have a tertiary sector for the 21st century and beyond.

Michelle Morgan is associate dean, student experience at Bournemouth University.


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Reader's comments (2)

I agree that a PQA system should be put in place and there is no reason the HE sector should say this is impossible given it is used in almost every other country in the world. On the matter of encouraging all students to have a gap year however I strongly disagree. Whilst a gap year is a chance to broaden horizons and grow up and learn how to take responsibility for oneself it can result in significant issues coping with academic demands when the start university. As a careers advisor I have found this to be a real issue in many subjects especially those where regular practice and familiarity are crucial to ability eg Maths, Classics. Also some students who wish to take further study either in academia or to progress to a professional qualification after their undergraduate degree eg lawyers or doctors do not want to wait another year before starting what might be a six year period of study or more. Others studying MML for instance benefit significantly from taking a Gap year to live and work in a country of their chosen language, or those studying Engineering who wish to work in industry for a year (although a year placement during their degree will arguably usually be more useful). Therefore I urge all my prospective applicants to think about the pros and cons of a gap year whatever they plan to do with it as it is not simply a question of whether you want to backpack round South East Asia or not!
I agree Joanna with a lot of what you say. However, over the years in my various roles as a Faculty, student experience and academic manager, I have lost count of the number of students I have had to counsel who have embarked on a course, especially professional ones such as Law, Engineering and Medicine, because they liked the sound of it or were encouraged by parents/teachers to do it. Plus there are the students who go to university because they are not sure what else to do. One year out of a potential 50 year study and work career is a small break. And if this break helps make the right decision for them, that is what is important. Not all students can afford to go backpacking for a year or work abroad but that year out can be used to obtain work experience whether paid or voluntary which could be in the discipline the student is considering. This will help inform their decision and potentially avert a large financial mistake. It also allows students to improve grades which opens up potentially different study options.


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