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Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has announced the UK government is to review the university admissions system.

It’s a plan focused on a new system for England that could see university places offered and awarded on grades rather than predictions. A consultation (to appear “in the coming months”) will consider how a new, fairer system could increase opportunities and accelerate social mobility in higher education. And Gavin Williamson has been on the evening news selling the plan. He told BBC news on Friday night that “I want all students to look at the grades that they’ve got and see what is the best university that they can get to what’s the best course it can do” – also known as post qualifications applications (PQA), his preferred, but also most politically and practically difficult version of admissions reform.

If this sounds familiar it’s because it is. Universities UK announced the results of its own near-identical review this morning including proposals on post qualifications offer-making (or “soft PQA”). The Office for Students has paused its admissions review until at least next September. And UCAS floated – but not fully revealed on Monday its forthcoming work that sounds like it will end up close to UUK’s version of the policy. How on earth did we get here?

The idea of applicants finding a university course using exam results rather than grade predictions is not a new one. It seems to re-emerge as a sector talking point every few years, with the University and College Union as consistent (if unlikely) advocates for a PQA system. It featured in the Dearing review in 1997, the Schwartz review proposed it in 2004, only for the topic to reemerge in 2011 as an aside in a DfE White Paper and in a set of UCAS proposals in 2012.

Comparing the possible benefits of such a system with the work required to bring it about has historically resulted in a gentle retreat from the plan. But there are always calls for reconsideration, on the rather nebulous grounds of “fairness” and “transparency”. So here we are again.

Those reviews in full

In July 2019, after a few years of sabre-rattling from ministers over offer making, Universities UK announced a fair admissions review. The review was set up to ensure admissions are fair, transparent and operating in the best interests of students.

It said it would recommend best practice in offer making and propose changes to ensure that university admissions work in the best interests of applicants.

The review group was to consist of UCAS, school, college, student, and university representatives. And off it went.

It was clear at that stage the Office for Students was thinking about running its own review – with lots of mutterings about who “owns” admissions and policy surrounding it. In September 2019, Gavin Williamson wrote to the Office for Students to set strategic priorities and in doing so welcomed its decision to conduct a review of the admissions system, along with its commitment to keep ministers and officials regularly informed of the emerging views and any recommendations from this work:

I note that you recognise the importance of gathering evidence and consulting with both students and schools and colleges and I would endorse the proposal to use the review to consider the pros and cons of potential models of Post Qualification Application (PQA). While this has been considered before, the context in which the sector is operating has changed and there has been much recent debate about this topic expressing differing views.

Overall, I anticipate that the review will be an opportunity to identify improvements, based on evidence, which will help to further improve and develop the admissions system so that it remains fair and transparent for students both now and in the future, particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. I look forward to your updates and final report.

In February 2020, the Office for Students finally formally announced its own “major review” of admissions posing “fundamental questions” for the future. It said the review would consider the use and accuracy of predicted grades and personal statements in undergraduate admissions, the role of contextual information in admissions for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, the use of unconditional offers and incentives and inducements in the admissions process, and the overarching transparency, fairness and effectiveness of the system for all students.

At the time it said that as well as the “status quo”, two major options were under consideration – post-qualifications offers for full-time undergraduate admissions, and post-qualification applications. The review was then officially paused in the spring due to the significant impact of the pandemic and will relaunch no earlier than autumn 2021-22. Just the other week OfS said that it is “working closely with the sector, the government and UCAS on this, including through the ministerial task force.” But how close?

Continued page 94

On Monday 9 November UCAS surprised the sector. In an op-ed in the Times, its new Director of Strategy, Policy and Public Affairs John Cope announced that UCAS had been carrying out its own thinking about the applications process. It focused on two options: making it so that course offers are made only on actual grades, and second, moving the application process to after grades are confirmed, meaning the university term is pushed back to January – with strong nudges towards the former. It later announced that full details on the two models being proposed and how UCAS would collect and review feedback on them will be published in the coming weeks.

By Friday 13 November Universities UK had published the results of its own review. It identifies post qualifications applications, post qualifications offers and post qualifications decisions as options, with post qualification offers (PQO) emerging as the preferred option to be put out for further consultation. The review also recommends a ban on conditional unconditional offers. A new code of practice would make clear that the use of any incentives in offer-making should not place any unnecessary pressure on applicants, and must be published clearly and consistently, and communicated to applicants in good time.

The review recommends that better and more consistent information be made available by providers on their use of contextual admissions to boost social mobility – with specific proposals for those on free school meals, applicants facing deprivation, and those who are care experienced. The working assumption is that it will take at least three years to implement any move to PQA, and that it will have implications for school and university timetabling, that UUK will now consult on mitigating.

That was two major reviews and an intervention from UCAS all jostling for position – at which point you would assume that ministers would simply convene a discussion at the taskforce as suggested by OfS. But no.

DfE has now announced its own plan to review the university admissions system, which does reference UCAS but doesn’t mention UUK or OfS. A new system could see university places “offered and awarded on grades rather than predictions”, it says, revealing plans to stage a consultation to consider how a new, fairer system could increase opportunities and accelerate social mobility in higher education.

Using much of the language in the other reviews and the UCAS intervention, at 6.30pm on a Friday evening now the Secretary of State says the government will consult on proposals to “remove the unfairness” that some groups currently face due to inaccurate predicted grades – but in doing so doesn’t reference the other reviews.

What on earth is going on?

This intervention has the hallmarks of a government struggling to demonstrate its grip – see also “we can get students home for Christmas and guidance will be produced imminently” and “the most important thing about summer exams is that we avoid grade inflation.” If the Department for Education had anything meaningful to say about admissions, they would save it for an actual policy consultation, or a white paper.

That said, given we know the rough final destination desired by this government, it makes practical sense for the sector to give it a roadmap to a version that satisfies the political imperatives, without forcing through a version that pleases almost nobody – that’s what we saw with UUK’s PQO proposal this week and it also seems to be the place that UCAS is likely to arrive at too. The working assumption in the sector is that the untempered version that Gavin Williamson would like, i.e. a system of only making applications after results, would probably be a policy bridge too far to achieve for a government already light on political capital – its implications would be too monumental for too many actors in the education system, the voices against too strong.

However, the drama and overlapping of interests of government and sector bodies we’ve seen this week disguise that, despite the less than ideal circumstances, there’s actually a sort of emerging consensus about “the best way forward all things considered” – also known as how higher education policy used to get made back in the day, and that’s the more moderate PQO approach. It may not be very sexy, or even the wisest course of action, but the best minds in the sector will have been put to making it as good as it can be, with the least amount of unintended consequences, and the maximum amount of opportunity for ministers to save face and claim credit for driving through sweeping reform. But as ever with something that carries such immense public interest and scrutiny as university admissions, we’ve got a long political journey ahead before we get close to implementing a genuine programme of reform.

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