Labour has pledged to radically reform university admissions by moving to post-qualification admissions (PQA), with students applying for courses after they have received their A-level results.
The move would spell the end of the clearing process, but the university admissions body Ucas warned that the vulnerable pupils would be disadvantaged if the change was not implemented carefully.
Announcing the policy ahead of A-level results day on Thursday, Labour said PQA would avoid reliance on an “unreliable system of predicted grades that unfairly penalises disadvantaged students and those from minority backgrounds".
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Angela Rayner MP, shadow secretary of state for education, said “radical action” was needed and that predicted grades were wrong in the vast majority of cases.
She said: “Disadvantaged students, in particular, are losing out on opportunities on the basis of those inaccurate predictions. No one should be left out of our education system just because of their background
“We will work with schools, colleges, and universities to design and implement the new system, and continue to develop our plans to make higher education genuinely accessible to all.”
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Labour says its plans would curb the sharp rise in unconditional offers, and end the clearing process, which is says can be “an incredibly stressful and worrying time for students”. It adds that PQA is the norm across the world, and that England is the only country with over a million students where a pre-qualifications admissions system is used.
However, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the change would require careful thought.
“It would be extremely difficult to manage the entire applications process in the few weeks between A-level results in mid-August and the beginning of university terms in September or October, and it is likely that we would need to rethink the entire calendar," he said.
“It is a good idea to look at moving to a system of post-qualification admissions for university, but it would represent a significant and complex change to our current admissions systems.
“It might be simpler to return to a system in which AS levels counted towards the first year of the full A-level as this allowed universities to use actual results in considering applications, and for universities to stop the practice of so-called ‘conditional unconditional’ offers – which are unconditional as long as the student makes the university their first choice – simply to put bums on seats.”
Clare Marchant, chief executive of Ucas, reiterated her belief that a post-results admissions service, if introduced wholesale within the current timetables, could “significantly disadvantage” underrepresented and disabled students.
Students 'happy with clearing process'
She said: ‘Young people need their teachers’ support when making application choices, and this isn’t readily available to all at the scale required when schools and colleges are closed during August.
“Under the current system, around 78 per cent of applicants receive their first choice of university or college, regardless of their background. Clearing provides a PQA for those students who want to wait until they have their results before applying, and in 2018 more than 17,500 students were accepted directly through this route. Eighty-seven per cent of applicants placed in clearing said they were happy, or extremely happy, with the application process.”
The Sutton Trust, which supports PQA, said that poorer students are more likely to have their grades under-predicted than their wealthier peers, making them less likely to apply to the most selective institutions.
Research by UCL’s Institute of Education found that nearly one in four disadvantaged students who go on to achieve AAB or better in A level have predicted grades lower than their final results.
According to analysis carried out by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills in 2011, black students were the most likely to have their grades under-predicted.
A DfE spokesperson said: “Last year there was a record rate of 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university, which is up more than 50 per cent from 10 years ago.
“Universities must ensure that their admissions practices are fair, to ensure everyone can access higher education, or they will face action. The Office for Students and Universities UK are already undertaking a review of university admissions to look at how well current practices serve students, and we urge all groups to support them to see how they can be improved.”