University access: government announces reform plans

Gavin Williamson has said the current higher education admissions system breeds low aspiration and unfairness

Julia Belgutay

The government has announced plans to reform the admissions process for higher education

Education secretary Gavin Williamson has announced plans to “radically change” the higher education admissions system and move to a post-qualifications approach.

The new system would see HE offers by colleges and universities made only after students have received their results, putting an end to the increasing use of unconditional offers, and removing the risk of students, particularly those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, receiving offers based on under-predicted grades.

Mr Williamson said the government would consult on proposals to “remove the unfairness” that some groups of prospective students currently face owing to inaccurate predicted grades.

The consultation will take place over the coming months and, according to the government, 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". The process will not affect university applications for 2021.

Mr Williamson added: “We should celebrate the fact that we are seeing record numbers of disadvantaged students going to university, but the current admissions system is letting down the brightest pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. 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.

“It has been a challenging time for the education sector, but Covid-19 will not stop this government from levelling the playing field and empowering students to have the very best opportunities to succeed.”

Ucas data for 2019 shows 79 per cent of 18-year-olds in the UK who were accepted to university with at least three A levels had their grades overpredicted, whereas 8 per cent were underpredicted. Research from UCL's Institute of Education showed that almost a quarter of high-ability applicants from lower-income households had their results underpredicted between 2013 and 2015.

Earlier this week, Ucas announced its plans to reform the system, which the admissions service said included a post-qualification option where students’ university and college offers would be based on their actual grades, rather than teachers’ predictions.


More: Ucas considering move to post-qualification offers

Need to know: ‘Teaching HE in FE, I worked 40 hours on 18 hours' pay’

News: OfS bans 'conditional unconditional' offers to HE


That would mean that all students, including those on technical and vocational routes, would receive offers from their chosen universities and colleges on the same day after getting their final qualification results in the summer.

Students would then not be giving up a potential place until their grades were known and would retain the long selection window in the prior months, which, according to Ucas, allows time to support students with disabilities and those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Following Mr Williamson's announcement today, Clare Marchant, chief executive of Ucas, said: “We support the government taking a serious look at reforming the admissions timetable, which we have been doing over the last few months with universities, colleges, students, and schools.

“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."

Earlier today, Universities UK published its Fair Admissions Review – supported by school, college, university and Ucas leaders. It concludes that in the longer-term, universities should only offer places to students after exam results are known. This, the review states, will result in greater transparency and confidence in the admissions system, reduce reliance on predicted grades and be fairer for students.

However, the review says any change to PQA would have implications for school and university timetabling, and could pose challenges for highly selective courses, and when arranging interviews. It may also mean there are fewer teachers available over the summer to help students make decisions and less time for applicants to respond to offers.

“It is expected to take at least three years to implement any possible move to PQA,” UUK said.

 

David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: “We welcome the commitment form the education secretary to review and take forward a new post-qualification admissions system for higher education. There have been lots of useful reviews on this already, and we are heartened by UUK’s sensible recommendations and the UCAS plan to look at changing the timetable so that it’s fairer to students. The current system is flawed and needs changing, to support more young people as well as adults to progress into higher education – both in universities and colleges.

"It is important, though to recognise that this alone won’t be enough to level up access to higher education given the vast disparity in resources available to students and inequalities in society. Achieving wider participation in HE will also require radical reforms in the system of funding and regulation of level 4 and level higher technical education and training. We hope that reforms in that area are taken forward soon as well as in the admissions system.”

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Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay is head of FE at Tes

Find me on Twitter @JBelgutay

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