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Applicants were rejected by default on the day of their exams

David Kernohan asks why some applicants faced rejection before breakfast and high-stakes exams afterwards in 2022.
This article is more than 1 year old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

There’s been a letter going around from a group of school-based higher education advisors that takes issue with a number of decisions made by UCAS regarding the 2021-22 application cycles.

Signatories are based in a number of internationally-minded private schools, but the issues raised are experienced by the majority of applicants from all kinds of backgrounds.

Rejection first, then breakfast, then exam

The principal problem seems to have been some shifts to deadlines and practices that the letter claims did not support student welfare. In particular, the later January deadline (26 January, rather than the usual 15 January) and the shifting of the provider reply data from March to 19 May, and the long waits that many applicants faced before they received a provider response.

On 19 May, applications that did not get a response were marked as “unsuccessful by default” – with a clear impact on applicants sitting a number of examinations (including SQA, International Baccalaureate, and Advance Placement) at the time. It cannot have been easy for applicants to receive a number of what appeared to be rejections on the morning of 19 May and then go on to sit exams the same day.

Signatories have called for a number of responses from UCAS:

  • A commitment to consult schools on future changes to cycle dates
  • A rethink of the 19 May reply date to avoid exam periods
  • The “decline by default” approach only to be used in extreme circumstances
  • An apology to affected applicants
  • A renewed commitment to student wellbeing

UCAS responds before the deadline

I asked UCAS for a response, and I was given a full written statement which I’ve made available to view here.

The agency claimed to have consulted with “teachers, applicants, schools, colleges, and the sector” in 2021 on the decision to move the Equal Consideration date from 15 January to 29 January – and reports that feedback received after that later date had passed was that the arrangement was an improvement as it gave “pupils and teachers more time work on applications and references”. For this reason, the change was extended to 2022.

UCAS also notes that this puts the deadline in the middle of the school week – making it easier for applicants to get last-minute support – and the later date offered more time for communication with graduates. We learn that it “is likely” that UCAS will continue with the later deadline. But what about the reply date?


UCAS tells us it used to give all higher education providers an “advisory date” (31 March) for reply with a decision to all applications received by the Equal Consideration date. In 2021 this was removed altogether to give providers “greater flexibility to consider applications equally whilst navigating their own challenges during the pandemic”. At the same time, UCAS removed the 19 May advisory date for applicants – a suggested point by which decisions on offers should be made – to “remove the burden of too many deadlines”.

Seemingly, 19 May remained the “reject by default” date as a means to ensure applicants receive timely decisions on their applications. Providers are required by UCAS to make decisions at the earliest available point – and advised against using the “reject by default” function. As the admissions guidance says:

We advise against this, as it can give applicants the impression that their applications have not been carefully considered”

Clearly, in the cases cited in the letter from advisors, this advice was not followed. UCAS does not apologise as such, but notes that “we understand that this would have been difficult”, commits to minimising the chances of a clash between these decisions and exam dates, and closes with a commitment to listen to the sector (by which they mean, I assume, both the schools sector and the higher education sector) to evolve the admissions cycle with the best interests of students at its heart.

Please leave a message

It’s not always easy to understand the requirements that UCAS puts on providers. Unlike, say, the Office for Students, the Student Loans Company, or the QAA there is a lot of advisory material that is only available to affected groups. I’d really like to see more publicly available guidance to providers – if only to allow the small minority of applicants who have a bad experience to properly hold providers (and indeed, UCAS) to account based on agreed expectations.

A summary on this page suggests that the reply date is still a requirement:

Customers must not ask applicants to reply to offers before the normal reply date, regardless of when the offer was made, unless the course starts before 1 September.”

And that:

Customers must make decisions about applications by the relevant published reject by default date, otherwise UCAS will reject the application (RBD).”

This is almost certainly a reference to the reject by default date as described on this page. It appears to me that an advisory date would also be useful for providers, applicants, and those that support them – I am not clear of the advantages of removing it.

The majority of application journeys are – while clearly stressful for applicants – clearly signposted and without issues. This cycle, like the last two, have been exceptional circumstances that pushed every aspect of the system to its limit.

But applicants receiving the equivalent of an email out of office response to reject an offer, and receiving this during their exams, is clearly far from what would usually be expected.

One response to “Applicants were rejected by default on the day of their exams

  1. This cycle has been awful – with far to long for decisions – October application, March/April decision. Receiving required grades is a big motivation factor during the academic year. Why not have an early decision and regular decision timeline with a % places being held to equal consideration in both?

    Why should equal consideration be given to someone who does not apply until the end of January – maybe candidates who show a strong, early commitment should he rewarded?

    Students could be encouraged to add choices sequentially rather than all five in one go if they havr not decided on all five choices.

    UCAS could consider students being able to flag a first and/or second choice which requires a firm acceptance to help universities know which students are committed to their institution when making offers (closer to US early decision / early action).

    Candidates should have the right to know the supply and demand for places when making their choices (including WP/international). Universities should publish how many carried over offers they are holding, and statistics on how many offers they made proportional to applicants in previous years and plans for current cycle (updating as targets may well change). Slots were wasted this year by candidates who, based on previous years would have hve expected to receive and offer.

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