The UCAS report is a response to the Department for Education’s (DfE) consultation on admissions reform in England, which closes on 13 May. The DfE consultation puts forward two models: Post Qualifications Admissions (PQA), where candidates apply to higher education when they know their results; and Post Qualification Offers (PQO), where prospective students apply to university before their exams and offers are made by universities after results day. The UCAS response supports the latter model and outlines the benefits it might bring and the risks it poses. Its support for reform is contingent on these various issues being resolved.
- UCAS recommends a model of PQO, where prospective students apply to university as they do now – before taking their end-of-school exams – but offers are made by universities after exam results are known. In engagement with students, over 70% said they would prefer to apply to university before they sat their exams (p11)
- Under UCAS’ model, applications are submitted from the September before the student intends to enrol – following an extensive period of research, in line with current timescales (p12)
- The model allows universities and colleges to develop an understanding of the potential, skills, and attributes of applicants beyond their grade profile alone, through selection processes such as interviews and auditions. This is essential in the cases of highly selective or specialist courses (p12)
- It ensures students understand and work towards the grades that will give them the greatest chance of success, maintaining the benefits of an ‘offer’ under the current model (p12)
- UCAS says the proposed changes would means schools face less extensive disruption to the academic year. In addition, the support applicants require during the summer months would be less compared with a PQA model (p12)
- Under PQO, universities and colleges could monitor data on application numbers and engagement to enable forecasting and planning. This would also bolsters the sector’s resilience in the event of any significant global disruptions (p12)
- By contrast, UCAS argues that a PQA model where all activity occurs after exams would significantly reduce the relationship between a university and student. This makes support for students with specific needs more challenging, which could impact retention. It also risks significant disruption to the academic year, and would require extensive support from schools and colleges during the summer months (p12)
- Despite the potential benefits of PQO, other significant issues remain. These include: the availability of support for applicants following the publication of exam results; and the maintenance of a UK-wide system, allowing students to have complete choice across the UK in an efficient and transparent manner (p10)
- Any new system must have regard to the complex admissions market for international students. Currently, around two fifths of students applying from outside the UK will have pending qualifications, and 80-90% of them will receive a conditional offer. A PQO post-qualification model could therefore have implications for the international competitiveness of UK higher education. This may be mitigated by maintaining an offer-based model, moving to an unconditional offer model or introducing a mandatory international student test (p14)
- Any changes to the admissions model would require thorough examination of the devolved nations’ regulatory frameworks and their dependencies on the current model. UCAS engagement found specific challenges in Scotland, which is likely to require additional DfE consultation (p17)
Implications for governance
The pros and cons of PQA have been the subject of debate in the education sector and beyond since as far back as the 1990s. Interest in reform has been expressed by various governments and has prompted two official consultations, prior to the current review. Despite an acknowledgment that the present system is not ideal, and some tinkering around the edges, there has been no wholesale change.
The current consultation was launched by the Westminster government in November 2020, leading to a consultation document published in January 2021. It suggested change was needed due to the unreliability of predicated grades which could be disadvantaging certain groups, such as high achievers from disadvantaged backgrounds who are more likely to be under-predicted. The proposed reforms also aim to address the “damaging” practice of making high numbers of unconditional offers, “conditional” versions of which are currently banned by the Office for Students.
In addition, governors should be aware that Universities UK has been running a Fair Admissions Review, which it reported on in November last year, becoming the first to put formally call for a version of PQO.
While any changes to the current system could potentially impact on governance areas such as student numbers, finance and staffing, the PQO model recommended by UCAS is a less dramatic alternative to a full PQA system.
It avoids significant moves to the university and college admissions calendar and the start of the academic year, which could be necessary under PQA. The more cautious PQO continues to give universities and colleges time to collect and monitor data on application numbers and engagement to enable forecasting and planning.
Compressed timelines under the PQA model, UCAS argues, put an increased focus on exams results in isolation, an emphasis that could be seen as a step backwards given the drive to widen access and encourage contextual admissions.
UCAS also warns that reducing the period to provide information, advice and guidance to students, and a shorter relationship between the student and provider, could impact on the quality of decisions. A new analysis shows that students who have a shorter relationship with a university or college are more likely to drop out.
Despite its preference for PQO, UCAS highlights a raft of risk factors that a switch to the new system could raise and which governors will want to take note of. The question of where international students might fit into a reformed admissions landscape is a significant issue and one which could impact on the competitiveness of UK universities. There is also a question mark over how to “maintain the benefits of a cross-UK model for admissions” that would require further consultation.
Even though PQO allows for support to be provided to students throughout their final year, there will still be a new peak in demand after results day that many schools may find difficult to resource. PQO could also impact negatively on groups of students whose schools’ overpredicted their attainment, such as black applicants.
Commentators have pointed out that PQO will still require some decisions being made on the basis of predicted grades, such as where students decide to apply in the first place and which applicants universities reject in the early stages. Equally, there is nothing inherent in PQO that would prevent universities making unconditional offers. A potential reduction in the time candidates might have for researching and applying for student accommodation has also been highlighted.
Some have questions whether it might just be more sensible to retain the current system, thereby securing all of the benefits of PQO over PQA, and avoiding the potentially serious drawbacks.
Governors may be interested in getting involved in a series of UCAS roundtables and engagement activities which will explore the issues further and which will inform its full consultation response that will be submitted and published in May (yet to be set up: for more information, follow the UCAS corporate Twitter account).
If admissions reform is on the cards, UCAS has recommended it happens no sooner than for entry in 2024.
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