Universities UK sets out Third Way for the future of admissions

The Universities UK Fair Admissions Review proposes a version of post qualification admissions. Debbie McVitty dives into the detail.

For decades the admissions policy debate has been framed as yes or no to post qualification admissions (PQA).

PQA has acted as a cultural lightning rod, pitting those who champion fairness and equal opportunity against what can be portrayed as the self interest of the conservative establishment.

The reality, as ever, is much more nuanced than that. As we’ve frequently discussed on Wonkhe, once you start really digging into the detail on PQA, there’s a lot to get worried about – and it’s not always very clear whether the problems it is intended to solve are sufficiently significant to warrant the degree of upheaval it would involve.

Sector outsiders take PQA as a no-brainer whereas sector insiders usually dismiss the idea. Mary Curnock Cook, former chief executive of UCAS, notoriously made the journey from PQA advocate to sceptic during her time at the helm of the admissions service.

Triangulation

Which is what makes the findings of the Universities UK admissions review all the more remarkable. Because Universities UK has come out in favour of PQA.

Or a version of it, at least. UUK’s proposals are positioned as the compromise space between the status quo and the radical alternative of shifting the entire applications and admissions process post-results.

The status quo is increasingly problematic for several reasons. The adoption by both major parties of a position in favour of PQA in principle means that the sector would need to expend a great deal of political capital in defence of current practice. The changing landscape for student recruitment, with marketing more central to the process than selection in many cases, means that public trust and confidence in the process is less of a given – especially when it comes to the controversial use of unconditional offers.

A radical version of PQA, in which students apply to university having received their results is also a problem. There’s just not enough time within the current timetable to allow students to apply, and be sorted, in the current post-results application window (Clearing), and so either results would have to be brought forward or the university term pushed back, and probably both. Moreover, universities would have very little sense of the demand for their courses, and very limited opportunities to build relationships with interested students, never mind carry out time-consuming assessments like auditions, in the available window.

The “third way” proposed by Universities UK – subject to further consultation with the secondary and higher education sectors – would see students create a UCAS profile in their final year of school or college and maintain a basket of university options – three is the suggested number, which would give universities some indication of the scale of demand for particular courses.

Universities could carry out activities like interviews, portfolio assessment and auditions, and reject unsuccessful students. Where a student received a rejection, they could substitute a different course for the rejected one. Come results day, universities would issue offers – and students without an offer or who had changed their mind would enter Clearing as usual.

The system is sketched out at a high level in anticipation of a rollout over the next three to four years, and is subject to consultation – doubtless there are many areas where individual universities will wish to make a case for their special circumstances. The three choices available to students will seem to some to be too generous and to others too parsimonious.

But at a stroke you do away with arguments about predicted grades (though students would presumably still be guided by predicted grades in assembling their basket of choices, and this would need to be taken account of). And you remove unconditional offers from the equation.

The political risk, perhaps, as with many efforts at policy triangulation, is that neither side is satisfied and the proposals face antagonism from both sides of the debate. Centrism, after all, is politically unfashionable.

There’s also a wider question which applies to all efforts on admissions reform, which is whether the direction of travel for the higher education sector sits well with a single point of entry. Clearly the school and college leaver cohort will always be a significant part of universities’ market, and with demographic expansion over the next decade is only going to increase.

But if some or all universities diversify to offer more part-time, short courses above or below degree level, or apprenticeships, with rolling start dates, we could start to see a clear division in entry routes between a highly systemised version of university admissions and a more ad hoc version that receives much less policy attention.

And the rest of it

PQA is undoubtedly the most eye-catching of the proposals in the Universities UK admissions review, but there’s plenty else to think about.

In the short term, the review proposes an update to the 2004 Schwartz principles on fair admissions, with the aim of putting a greater focus on applicants and less of a focus on the interests of institutions. In practice the suggested updates focus on universities being more open and communicative about how they run admissions, and making more of a direct link with equalities in the implementation and review of admissions processes.

There are also restrictions proposed on offer-making, with conditional unconditional offers banned outright, conditional offers used only under very specific circumstances, and restrictions on the use of incentives.

In the medium term, it’s proposed that the rest of the UK follows the Scotland example in adopting common measures for informing contextual admissions and a sector-level statement on how and why they are used. This move would be a sacrifice of provider autonomy in a truly worthy cause; UUK polling to inform the review found that difference in practice across institutions was confusing to applicants and in some cases, creating additional hurdles.

Equally controversially for some, the review proposes that universities publish actual, historic entry grades along with advertised entry requirements, allowing prospective students and their advisors to make much more of an informed choice about whether it is worth applying to a particular institution. This is something that’s historically been a major sticking point for some universities, especially those hoping to be seen as highly selective, but there’s little or no moral case for not implementing it.

All these measures together would form part of a new code of practice for admissions, owned by the sector, but with “consequences” for breaches – though much of the credibility of the proposals may depend on what these consequences turn out to be. This, too, would be put to consultation in the medium term.

In its own way this code of practice represents another third way between total institutional autonomy and direct regulation of admissions by an external party, and highlights the larger risks facing the sector. The Office for Students admissions review has not gone away, though it has been delayed. Ministers at the Department for Education will be keen to put their own stamp on admissions and perhaps regain some credibility lost during the pandemic over their grip on entry to universities.

With this review Universities UK has taken the pragmatic view that it is worth sacrificing some institutional autonomy to retain sector autonomy over admissions. While the detail of the proposals should clearly be the subject of debate in the interests of applicants, schools, colleges and universities themselves, any university minded towards intransigence should probably consider the politically feasible alternatives before digging in too deeply.

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