PQA is off the table – so let’s get on with reforming admissions

DfE won't be reforming university admissions, but that doesn't mean the sector shouldn't, says Sunday Blake

Sunday Blake is associate editor at Wonkhe

The Department for Education has confirmed that there is no plan to introduce a post-qualification admissions (PQA) system.

Slipped out alongside the Augar response and consultations on HE reform and the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, a report combining the government’s response to the PQA consultation and an analysis of consultation responses notes that the level of support expressed for PQA is not sufficient to warrant such a major upheaval and says:

We will not be reforming the admissions system to a system of PQA at this time. Instead, we will continue to work with UCAS and sector bodies to improve transparency, reduce the use of unconditional offers, and reform the personal statement to improve fairness for applicants of all backgrounds.

Some, especially UCU, which has long championed the PQA cause, are unhappy about this, arguing that keeping the system of pre-results applications and offers entrenches social inequalities and prevents social mobility and access to higher education for less advantaged students.

However, a lot of people in the sector are breathing a sigh of relief. The arguments are well-rehearsed in earlier iterations of this debate, and appear again throughout the consultation responses.

PQA would be a lot of costly disruption without any benefit. It would remove the situational context of admissions assessment – from interviews, auditions, and portfolios – and reduce offer making to grades alone. Admissions offices would have significantly less time to process the number of applications which would flood through after results day (even if it was moved to July), as opposed to the January deadline six months earlier.

And applicants would be pressed, too. Decisions may be made in haste, and that’s before they look at sorting out housing, applying for student finance, and potentially relocating to a different city in a matter of weeks. Students with specific needs – such as students with disabilities, or neurodiverse students – would be sidelined. Students would need information and advice over the summer – the very time where schools and colleges are least geared up to provide it.

Students on vocational degrees which require background checks would face further stress, too – the Disclosures and Barring Service is notoriously slow at the best of times, and many of these kinds of courses start earlier than the standard term start date.

So, all in all, post-qualification admissions would be detrimental. We’ve – largely – collectively agreed (again). Okay.

It’s bigger than PQA

But the debate about admissions reform needs to be much bigger than whether or not students should apply before or after they get their grades. It’s pretty clear that PQA would not address in full the significant structural inequality that is baked into the system – perhaps it would address some aspects, but it would exacerbate others. The real question, then, is what kind of admissions reform would make a difference?

The consultation responses suggest a somewhat higher degree of support for what in the DfE consultation was called “model 2” and corresponds broadly to proposals put forward by Universities UK and UCAS which would see students applying before receiving their results, but not receiving offers until results were in.

It’s also notable that while HE respondents to the DfE consultation are by and large fairly comfortable with predicted grades – knowing that there are ways of controlling for their fundamental inaccuracy in offer-making – students, and schools and colleges are rather less convinced that the system is accessible, fair, and transparent.

Those UUK and UCAS proposals for a post qualification offer model were accompanied by a basket of sensible ideas for improving access, fairness, and transparency in admissions, such as agreeing a common approach to the use of contextual admissions across providers, publication of historic entry grades, and stamping out use of conditional unconditional offers.

It would be a terrible shame if the government’s delay in deciding what it wants to do about the former Secretary of State’s personal PQA crusade took the wind out of the sails of less radical, but more palatable admissions reform.

A key clinching argument against PQA – that it would restrict the available time for applicants to consider their options and seek advice – distracts from the current reality. Put crudely, the most disadvantaged students are already not able to access information and guidance. In fact, limiting the time available to all students to access information and guidance would probably be a step towards levelling the playing field. But while PQA would level down, the field is clear now to adopt the kinds of measures that could help level up provision of information, advice, and guidance.

Responding to the government’s PQA announcement, UCAS chief executive Clare Marchant has pledged to continue to pursue a programme of reform, including working to make a range of post-compulsory options available side by side to expand choice.

But the wider agenda of widening choice – culminating in the proposed Lifelong Loan Entitlement supporting a dizzying array of modules and qualifications – must come with a serious side order of information, advice, and guidance, if students with less social capital are to make the most of the opportunities available.

It is not enough to rule out PQA on the arguments that it would create problems for all students that some already routinely face. DfE has ruled out a system where they would exist across the board; now they need to be removed or mitigated for those who face them under the current admissions system.

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