UCAS cautiously recommends a move to post qualification offers

For UCAS' chief executive Clare Marchant, a move to post qualification offers benefits without the drawbacks of post-qualification applications.

Clare Marchant is chief executive of UCAS.

Reform and continuous improvement are in UCAS’ DNA.

It has been over two years since we set out to engage with admissions and recruitment professionals, school leaders and students to determine what reimagining the current undergraduate admissions model might entail, as part of the latest iteration of the long-standing debate around post-qualification admissions, and as part of our continual commitment to improving outcomes for students.

We have engaged with thousands of people and heard clearly that a different way to do university admissions could tackle some of the well documented challenges with the current system, such as the use of unconditional offers and predicted grades, and provide a better, fairer experience for applicants.

This process involved significant input to the recent Universities UK admissions review which included the modelling of various options of post-qualification admissions. This week, with the publication of our Reimagining UK admissions report we are proposing a post qualifications offer (PQO) approach, but with the caveat that to deliver it, is not without significant challenge.

Our prescription for post qualification admissions

We are recommending a model where students make their applications before they take their exams, but where universities and colleges only make offers when results are known, eliminating the need for predicted grades or pre-qualification unconditional offers.

Our recent survey of 13,000 current applicants carried out with Youthsight found that 70 per cent are in favour of a system that retains the ability for them to submit applications before exams. This model retains that benefit, allowing students to continue to research their options over an extended period, to build a relationship with the universities they are applying to, then decide which offer to accept at the point at which they are most informed. Indeed, students would also have the chance to explore new opportunities with their exam results in hand.

Our report comes a few weeks before the closure of a Department for Education consultation on the introduction of post-qualification admissions, which asks for views on two different models. In backing a variation of one of the models proposed, we are also strongly warning against any change that would see all application and offer making activity happen after exams in what would be a pressured timeframe, as we believe that it would lead to an increase in dropout rates, particularly in disadvantaged groups – the exact opposite of what we are trying to achieve through reform.

Our report includes new UCAS research that shows students that apply late in the cycle, and therefore have a shorter relationship with their chosen university, are up to three times more likely to drop out by their second year than those that apply by January. While this will in part be due to the distinctive characteristics of later applicants and their choices, initial analysis controlling for some of these factors shows that significant differences in drop out rates remain.

We also believe such a model runs the risk of making university offers purely about exam results, and not individuals, by condensing the time available for admissions teams to make good use of the full range of assessment techniques such as portfolios, auditions and interviews – many of which particularly benefit more disadvantaged applicants.

A conditional offer

However, introducing a PQO model would not be without challenge. Without a thorough mitigation of three critical issues we believe its implementation would entail more risk than the benefits it seeks to deliver. Consideration must be given to how international students apply to UK universities, in 2020 150k students from outside the UK applied through UCAS; therefore a system where offers are made later in the year poses significant risks to the UK’s competitive position in the global student recruitment market.

A PQO model would require schools and colleges to be available for longer during that crucial August period to support students as they receive offers, which would need significant investment from government. We know the vast majority of students rely on this support, with 85 per cent saying in our survey that they consulted with a teacher or adviser when making their university decisions, and two-thirds doing so on a regular basis.

And it will be important to preserve the benefits to applicants of a cross-UK model for university and college admissions without the burden of navigating multiple systems and making multiple applications. In 2020, 178k cross-border applications were made, and 30k UK students were accepted in a university not in their home nation. So collaboration between all four nations in bringing about any change would be crucial.

For nearly 30 years, UCAS has supported students across all four nations of the UK providing information, advice, and admissions services to enable young and mature individuals to progress to the next stage of their educational journey, with services spanning undergraduate, postgraduate, and apprenticeship pathways. Absolutely critical to our role is student choice, enabling fair admissions, putting applicants’ best interests at its heart and driving for better inclusivity, transparency and support, particularly for those individuals who might not have sufficient advice at home, school or college.

UCAS supports reform regardless of whether the overall model of HE admissions is changed. Over the years we have evolved the admissions service to better serve applicants and broaden participation, and we are committed to continue doing so. A drive to continuously transform the existing model can work to enable a fairer, more inclusive, transparent and easy to navigate model, particularly with recent strides forward in improving parity of alternative routes, such as apprenticeships, so that applicants can make well informed choices that they feel are right for them.

It is likely that the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic will continue for some years to come. Negating the effects of the pandemic will be the priority for all of us in the education sector, so there is no doubt that we should plan our next steps very carefully. As we emerge from two years of no exams and disrupted learning, we are strongly recommending a full consideration of the timing of any reform implementation.

It is vital that any significant change to the overall model is confirmed far enough in advance so that applicants and teachers know the rules of the game and students can be adequately supported to navigate the changes.

3 responses to “UCAS cautiously recommends a move to post qualification offers

  1. This reads about as luke-warm an endorsement as UCAS felt it could give, politically. Or put another way, about as quiet a scream of warning as it felt it could issue. Note in particular the reference to drop-out rates. The UK’s completion rate is north of 70% across the sector – way above comparable countries with PQA where its well south of 40%. The statement “Consideration must be given to how international students apply to UK universities…” is one of the biggest under-statements ever made in a WONKHE posting. The financial consequences for international recruitment look horrific unless overseas students are treated completely separately. Loss of internationals would inevitably mean significant redundancies – something UCU should soon wake up to.

    1. Strange. How come it works in Ireland and has done so for many years? Google “CAO”.

  2. Ireland has higher dropout rates and poorer first year retention than the UK and there is serious concern about this, particularly in STEM subjects. The Union of Students an the Higher Education Authority, among others, have warned that the quick transition from CAO to higher education results in students starting their course without sufficient preparation and often ending up on the wrong course.

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