Education secretary Gavin Williamson has signalled plans to “radically change” the university admissions system which is “letting down” the brightest pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.
Williamson said that he will review a post-qualification university admissions (PQA) system, whereby students in England would receive university offers once they have obtained their final grades.
The move comes amidst concern that the current admissions system, whereby students choose universities who then make offers based on predicted grades, can work against high achievers from disadvantaged backgrounds.
He said that the government will consult on proposals to “remove the unfairness”.
Williamson made the announcement in a week that saw both Universities UK (UUK) and UCAS, the admissions service, make the case for a post qualifications model.
Research from UCL’s Institute of Education showed almost a quarter of high-ability applicants from lower-income households had their results under-predicted between 2013 and 2015.
Williamson said: “By using predicted grades it is limiting the aspirations of students before they know what they can achieve. We need to radically change a system which breeds low aspiration and unfairness.
“That is why we are exploring how best to transform the admission process to one which can propel young people into the most promising opportunities for them within higher education.”
UCAS data for 2019 shows 79% of 18-year-olds in the UK accepted to university with at least 3 A levels had their grades over-predicted, whereas 8% were under-predicted.
Meanwhile, research by the Sutton Trust published last month, showed that 66 per cent of students surveyed in September felt a post-qualification approach would be fairer than predicted grades.
Earlier this week, both UCAS and UUK put forward the model whereby offers are made after the results are known. UCAS also posited, as a second option, a model whereby students would apply for a place after A-level results day. This latter option would mean delaying the start of the university term until January.
However any shift to university admissions is likely to be disruptive.
Clare Marchant, chief executive of UCAS, said: “There are different approaches to reform, so it’s right for any consultation to be open minded and have the aim of levelling up fairness for students. Importantly, the consultation will provide an opportunity to address any unintended consequences of such major change, as well as practicalities for higher education providers.”
Moving to a PQA system has been explored before, but any support for it has never materialised into action. It was raised in the Dearing Report into higher education, in 1997 and explored again in the Schwartz Review in 2004, which endorsed such a system. A UCAS report subsequently looked at the option but did not recommend it, whilst a more recent study by the Universities and Colleges Union endorsed a PQA system.
Williamson believes that moving to a system where offers are made after students have received their results would put an end to the widespread use of unconditional offers, which sees students being encouraged to accept an offer which may not be in their best interest, and can leave them unprepared for university study.
Analysis published by the OfS and provided by the Department for Education shows that those studying for A levels who accept an unconditional offer are more like to drop-out after their first year of study.
The government will set out proposals for consultation “in the coming months”. Schools, alongside colleges and universities, will be asked for their views to “make this work in the best interests of students”.
The Department for Education said this will be a “collaborative process to explore how post-qualification admissions could work in the UK and whether this will improve social mobility and the experience of students”. It will not affect university applications for 2021. The UUK review proposed moving to a PQA model in 2023.
The consultation will also provide an opportunity to look at “wider improvements to admissions”. This includes reviewing the use of personal statements.