This article is more than 3 years old

We need a fairer system for admitting students to university

As we approach an A level results day like no other, Graeme Atherton argues that we should look for a fairer admissions system that better supports students.
This article is more than 3 years old

Graeme Atherton is the Director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON), and Head of the Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up at the University of West London

New research conducted with senior leaders from schools, colleges and universities adds weight to the case for an admissions system where students apply after they have received their results.

A report I’ve co-written shows that over 80% of school leaders who responded to our survey think the present admissions system is not fit for purpose, and over 90% think that there should be limits on the use of unconditional offers.

Nearly 75% of sixth-form and further education college leaders think that the government is not doing enough to support fair admission to higher education.

A way forward

If we are to emerge through Covid-19 with a stronger educational system then it is vital we listen to the voice of schools and colleges. Thankfully, there is a way forward that over 80% of university, college and school leaders want to explore: a post-qualifications admissions (PQA) system where students apply on the basis of their results, not the predictions of overburdened teachers and college lecturers.

Put simply, the current system is outdated and not fit for purpose. It uses predicted grades to award university places, yet studies show they are wrong in the majority of cases.

It encourages universities to use unconditional offers to entice students, even though recent research found that the dropout rate was 10 per cent higher for students who accepted unconditional offers than would have been expected if they had accepted conditional offers.

It discriminates against high achieving students from poorer backgrounds who are more likely to be predicted lower grades. A survey of recent university applicants earlier this year found that over half (56%) felt universities should only make offers after students receive their results.

Support for students applying after they get their results was highest amongst traditionally hard to reach groups such as black and minority ethnic students, and those who were the first in their family to go to university.

Unique in a bad way

The system we persist with is one that is not used anywhere else in the world. A previous report we did with the University and College found that England, Wales and Northern Ireland we are alone in using a system where students are offered university places based on predicted grades. From the outside, our current system must make little sense and is not what most would design if starting from scratch.

A root and branch reform of our admissions system would provide an opportunity for joined-up thinking – both in terms of how students are supported to make choices about where to study, and how we ensure institutions are making fair, transparent and well-informed choices about the students they want to educate.

Staff working in university admissions are as committed as anyone to making the system fairer and in a survey of staff involved in university admissions, seven out of 10 respondents said they would support shifting to a PQA system.

Now feels like the time for all of us in schools, colleges and universities to deliver a radical overhaul. We should learn from examples around the world about what works and embrace this peculiar opportunity to make university admissions fairer.

The events of the past six months have shown us that change is possible. Changing our outdated system would be an important step towards a higher education system where all students have a fairer chance of access to the life changing potential of higher education.

One response to “We need a fairer system for admitting students to university

  1. Hi Graeme
    Can you provide the link to both the report you’ve written and new research you allude to in the opening two paragraphs?

Leave a Reply