Reviewing Universities UK’s Fair Admissions Review

Admissions expert Dan Shaffer assesses the UUK Fair Admissions Review on the extent to which it aids admissions professionals - and finds some limitations.

If you haven’t been eagerly awaiting the delayed publication of UUK’s fair admissions review then Friday’s release may have passed you by without disappointment.

I, on the other hand, was one of those hoping the extra time had been spent unravelling the confusion over the summer.

How fair is fair?

The pandemic is an extreme case, but coping with external unfairness is a true test of how fair our recruitment and selection truly is. Some universities, like the one I was lucky to be working with, successfully predicted and preempted the inequities of awarding grades based on the historical performance of others. Many others reacted quickly to the government’s shifting position and the genuine anguish of applicants.

UCAS similarly responded quickly, extending deadlines, getting revised results out promptly and keeping the sector informed. However, there was no unified “voice” of fair admissions challenging Ofsted’s claims its algorithm was fair, or testing those claims against the principles of fair admissions. Many were caught off guard and admissions professionals across the country worked frantically to redress the problems.

My thoughts on the admissions review have therefore centred on how well it sets the framework for those admissions professionals and how much its recommendations will improve their capacity to address past and future challenges to fair admissions. Fortunately for UUK, I won’t mark it on the performance of prior reviews, but on its own merit and potential.

Recommendation 1: Universities and colleges should abide by a revised set of admissions principles centred around applicants.

The original principles of fair admissions derived from the 2004 Schwartz Review are long overdue a health check, even though other organisations, such as Supporting Professionalism in Admissions (SPA) and the QAA have re-evaluated them in the past decade.

It should be reassuring that this major review has left the principles largely untouched. Most of the changes are explanatory notes; the substance is the same. The key shift is to focus on fairness from the applicants’ perspective, not the institutions’. This conveniently mirrors the OfS approach and is an important clarification to make. SPA was established out of the Schwartz Review to advise universities and colleges on fair admissions and, up until its funding ended, had no remit to engage with applicants or their advisers.

This review does not appear to have addressed that flaw. The wording is still very much focused on systems, not people, and it is hard to believe applicants can make reasoned judgments on whether admissions is fair if they are left unaware of the criteria. If there is no other body responsible for centring these principles on applicants, then each university should inform and seek feedback on how well applicants feel the principles are met.

Recommendation 2: Universities and colleges should ensure that admissions and offers are made in the best interests of students, without limiting ambition or adversely influencing course choices.

Although the principles of fair admissions have come out of the review lightly, specific practices have not. This highlights the negative influences of incentives, especially “conditional unconditional” offers and, although other champions of fair admissions have criticised such behaviour previously, this recommendation seems more likely to be enforceable. It is useful to remove any lingering ambiguity with such a clear call to stop and it should make it easier in future for admissions staff to cite their concerns.

It is largely a reaffirmation of the stance the OfS took earlier in the year, rather than a new recommendation, and a response to years of concern that such practices were unfair. There are also numerous exceptions made that may permit unconditional offers, so some admissions professionals may soon be tasked with devising a suitable “additional application procedure” that would allow places to be confirmed for some applicants before exam results.

Recommendation 3: Universities and colleges should be ambitious in ensuring admissions practices address inequalities in access and participation including greater transparency in the use of contextual admissions (in England, Wales and Northern Ireland).

Contextual admissions has been a longstanding project in HE and vast resources of money, time and effort have been expended with mixed results. The review highlights that awareness of contextual offers appears lowest among those applicants who would benefit most.

Moreover, the procedures are often very complicated and difficult to publicise clearly, so although they may help an applicant gain entry they may be far less effective at convincing someone to apply in the first place. The recommendation for greater consistency in the indicators used across the sector would be a welcome help, so long as widening participation staff do not feel other groups they’ve successfully engaged with may lose out.

Admissions staff may need to reconsider how they collect such information and raise awareness of its use, mindful that recent events may mean applicants and advisers will be less trusting of an algorithm based on associations with groups in historical data. It’s good to see specific inclusion of applicants who’ve been in local authority care, as they are a disadvantaged group that are far too underrepresented (around 12 per cent go into higher education) and are more likely to intersect with other potential barriers to access. This approach is already in train in Scotland, and would align the rest of the UK with Scottish practice.

Recommendation 4: Universities and colleges should improve the level of transparency of information and guidance for applicants to support aspiration-raising.

This has been perhaps the most controversial recommendation as it focuses on publishing historic, actual grades on entry alongside advertised entry requirements. There have been concerns that it may undermine recommendations for wider use of lower contextual offers or, if it includes qualifications not considered for entry, may imply actual requirements are much higher than expected.

Admissions and planning teams will need to work out an accurate method for calculating valid entry grades without making it overly complex to explain. There is a risk this could lead to different measures on some universities’ websites, increasing confusion.

However, UCAS is already pushing ahead with providing advisers with actual grades information, so it is likely the sector will have to fall in line with those measures to avoid providing contradictory messages.

Recommendation 5: UCAS should progress with a series of planned reforms to improve fairness and transparency in admissions.

All of the reforms recommended in the review are ones UCAS have already initiated or planned, so none should come as news to admissions professionals. Perhaps surprisingly, there is no broader requirement on UCAS to support fair admissions, as there is for other national bodies.

Recommendation 6: Governments must support fairness and transparency in admissions.

It is unclear at this stage how much weight this recommendation carries, but admissions professionals may be reassured by the recognition that much of the duty on delivering fair admissions requires cross-nation and cross-sector collaboration. Such government support will come at a price though and staff should be prepared for greater reporting and potentially greater external accountability.

Recommendation 7: The higher education sector should take a more proactive approach to identifying and addressing key admissions challenges and criticisms.

This recommendation most closely addresses the need to redress our slow, reactive attempts to address unfairness. There is promise of a new, potentially enforceable, code of practice to push adoption of the relevant parts of the review’s recommendations. UCAS is likely to be responsible for policing compliance, through its terms of service – so there will be some gaps in sign-up – but if appropriate training is provided then the code will be a useful step.

This recommendation also calls for a forum consisting of HE providers, pre-HE providers and applicants to evaluate fairness and to address emerging issues. I was pleased to see the challenges of Covid-19 was top of the list of topics, although it will need to convene quickly if it is to have any impact on how current applications are handled.

Recommendation 8: Further consideration should be given to a reformed undergraduate admissions system based on a post qualifications admissions (PQA) model in which applicants do not receive offers until their exam/assessment results are known

This recommendation would render most of the previous ones redundant, so it is best to think of them as interim measures until this substantial change comes in. That does mean a lot of work on short-lived measures, whilst simultaneously planning for a complete overhaul.

The implementation of PQA is proposed for 2023-24, which would mean to live up to the principles of fair admissions the finalised process would need to be publicised to advisers and potential applicants 12-18 months in advance. Less substantial changes in admissions – such as the move to paperless admissions – took far longer and different providers moved at different paces.

Such inconsistencies would undermine the entire purpose of creating a fairer system for all, so smaller providers may need supplementary finance and expertise to ensure delivery. Rushing such a major change without unified support and oversight of process developments is highly likely to lead to unintended consequences that builds-in unfairness.

For example, UUK’s preferred model envisages a relatively similar application timeline, but with offers delayed until after results. Applicants will only be permitted up to three choices, but if they’re seen as unsuitable they can change them a potentially unlimited number of times prior to results.

There’s a high risk, based on precedent, that some selective courses in some universities will only consider those who put them in their initial three choices. The proposed new model has every potential to have disadvantage implicitly built-in and create a new market where obscured selection practices favour those with additional advice and support.

PQA has been a very long time building and UUK is just the latest in a long line of sector voices to back it. Whether you favour PQA (in one of its many forms) or not, it is now time to shift the debate onto ensuring it delivers on its promises. Similar to the current admissions process, it will not necessarily be the system that’s unfair, but how it is used.

The delay has not done the review any favours. Many of the recommendations read less like a revolutionary approach and more like a catalogue of what is already happening. Some of it would have sounded more radical if it came out with the Schwartz Review over 15 years ago, but now it feels more like a belated acceptance of opportunities that should have been seized earlier.

I am still hopeful that putting some genuine accountability behind the principles of fair admissions may gradually move us towards pre-empting unfair practice. We must be better prepared to ensure admissions treats all applicants fairly by assessing and mitigating risks to that fairness in advance. At the time of writing, HE providers are still responsible for who and how they admit students, which means it is our duty, no-one else’s, to ensure we are fair to those seeking admission.

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