Universities ‘should give offers after results day’
School leavers should apply to universities only after seeing A-level results, according to a report backed by university staff.
The Universities and College Union said the move would eliminate the use of unconditional offers and the “chaotic” clearing process – as well as removing a bias in favour of independent school applicants.
The major reforms would see school leavers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland apply for courses after seeing the results of their A-level and BTec exams or other qualifications, rather than applying months beforehand. Students would start the first year of higher education in November.
Angela Nartey, an UCU policy officer and report co-author, said: “The current system simply isn’t fit for purpose. It was designed in the 1960s when only about 5% of school leavers went on to study at university, and there’s an urgent need for reform and greater transparency.”
But the UCU faces an uphill struggle because of what one vice-chancellor said was “institutional conservatism” among school and university leaders.
Previous pushes for reform have been hit by opposition from university leaders and the Ucas admissions service. But changes to funding and the removal of limits on undergraduate recruitment have shifted admissions towards the interest of applicants.
UCU’s efforts to reopen the discussion were backed by Gordon Marsden, the shadow higher education minister. “An urgent debate needs to be had on post-qualification admissions,” he said. “From unreliable predicted grades that can underestimate the ability of disadvantaged students to the skyrocketing number of unconditional offers, the current system is in need of a serious rethink if it is to give every student the chance to succeed.”
Sixth-formers currently apply for places on courses by January, months before their exams. The timing forces applicants and universities to base their decisions on teacher predictions of likely grades – despite evidence showing these to be largely inaccurate. By bringing forward exams for A-levels and similar qualifications to after Easter and pushing back the start of term for first-year undergraduates, the UCU authors are confident that the bulk of applications and acceptances could take place in August.
The time between the end of exams and results being published at the start of August should be used to provide high-quality advice on career options and potential courses, the UCU says.
“A higher education system should be more than a cycle. It should be a set of support structures that enables students to make decisions about their higher education course and institution,” the report, co-written by Graeme Atherton of the National Education Opportunities Network, states.
Bill Rammell, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and a former higher education minister under Labour, said he strongly supported post-qualification admissions but that first-year students starting their courses a few weeks after other students would be unpopular.
“We are slowly moving towards post-qualification admissions in any case, because students are now in the driving seats,” said Rammell.
Such a shift would also end the clearing process, a scramble for remaining places among students without a university offer that takes places immediately after exam results in mid-August.
The change would also kill off the increasing use of unconditional offers by some institutions, which award places to students regardless of their eventual grades. Unconditional offers have been strongly criticised by headteachers as causing disruption in schools and removing incentives for pupils to perform to their best ability.
Nartey also said that previous research published by UCU had found that some under-represented groups including ethnic minorities were disadvantaged by the existing system, because their predicted A-levels may not have matched their true abilities.
Universities UK said: “One reason universities decided not adopt a new model was because disadvantaged students would not have access to one of their best sources of information for advice on university applications, their school or college, in the time they need to make a decision. We recognise there are still challenges to address, including improving information for students and accuracy of predicted grades, and we will be reviewing new information on this topic from Ucas with interest when it is published.”
5% The proportion of school leavers who went on to university in the 1960s