Out-Law / Your Daily Need-To-Know

Post-qualification admissions planned for English universities

Out-Law News | 17 Nov 2020 | 10:02 am | 3 min. read

The UK government has announced an overhaul of the English university admissions system, under which students would only receive offers once they had obtained their final A-level grades.


Education secretary Gavin Williamson said the move could help high-achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who were more likely to have under-predicted grades and enter courses below their ability.

Universities and Colleges Admissions Service data from 2019 showed 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.

The government said a shift to a post-qualification admissions (PQA) system could also put an end to the “soaring use” of unconditional offers, which it said encouraged students to accept a university offer that may not be in their best interest. Students who accepted unconditional offers were 11.5% more likely to miss their predicted A levels by three grades or more and were more likely to drop out of their course.

The announcement comes as Universities UK (UUK) published its Fair Admissions Review (28 page / 545KB PDF), the culmination of 18 months’ work aiming to build more transparency and trust and improve public understanding of universities’ admission processes. UUK also recommended a switch to a PQA system from 2023, subject to full consultation.

Higher education expert Rebecca McCall of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, said it was notable that the government, UUK and UCAS all appeared to be backing PQA.

“The move towards PQA is a welcome shift in policy; it will bring the UK in line with the majority of the sector globally and should result in a fairer, more inclusive admissions system. Any change in admissions arrangements will need to be managed carefully in order that all sector stakeholders benefit – and to avoid scenes similar to those seen following A-level results this summer,” McCall said.

“UUK has set out in its report carefully considered proposals, and it will be keen for government to have regard to these when carrying out its own consultation and implementing any recommendations coming out of it. The Office for Students [OfS] has yet to respond to the proposals and it will be interesting to see what it has to say; its own consultation on admissions currently having been pushed back to next year, but which will perhaps now be expedited in light of last week’s announcements,” McCall said.

The government said it would set out proposals for consultation in the coming months, inviting views from schools, colleges, and universities. It said the process would not affect university applications for 2021.

The consultation will also look at wider improvements to admissions, including reviewing the use of personal statements, when those from state schools are less likely to have support writing their statement and relevant work experience to include; and ensuring students can make more informed choices about further and higher education.

McCall said it would be crucial for higher education providers to engage with the consultation, as a move to PQA would be the biggest fundamental change in the sector since the introduction of the Higher Education and Reform Act in 2017.

“While providers have autonomy over admissions to their own courses under that act, such autonomy will perhaps need to be seen in a more limited way so that there can be proper legal and transparent standards across the sector regarding consumer law compliance and consistency of approach, including in respect of use of contextual data,” McCall said.

“The sector must be seen to have an appetite for self-reform to build confidence in its ability to develop an effective admissions framework before government or the OfS seeks to impose one,” McCall said.

The UUK review’s other recommendations included putting an end to ‘conditional unconditional’ offers, where an applicant is offered an unconditional place on condition they make the university their firm first choice. UUK said there should be guidance on the acceptable use of unconditional offers.

The review recommended a new code of practice to maintain admissions standards, with consequences if an institution breached the code, and said there needed to be greater transparency, consistency, and standard indicators to support contextual offer-making. UUK said institutions should publish historic entry grades alongside entry requirements to improve transparency and raise aspirations.

“The shorter term measures proposed by UUK will also impact on providers’ recruitment and admissions procedures; again, key stakeholders in providers’ marketing, recruitment and admissions teams will need to act quickly if the proposals are adopted to ensure that student marketing materials in particular meet the requirements of any sector-owned code of practice, taking into account what can often be a long lead time for the production of such marketing materials,” McCall said.