What might be changing in university admissions from 2023 onwards?

A new publication highlights key changes to academic references, and offers you the chance to feed in to conversations on personal statements.

David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

Following a number of consultations over recent years, Post Qualification Admissions did not make the grade.

Though reputedly a pet project of Gavin Williamson, the weight of expert opinion suggested that requiring students to apply to providers using grades rather than predictions would represent a huge implementation challenge involving many risks and uncertain rewards.

But the idea of updating admissions remained. There was a line in the Department for Education’s Higher Education Reform consultation and policy statement, nearly a year ago, that read:

we will continue to work with UCAS and sector bodies to tackle problems at their root, improving transparency, reducing the use of unconditional offers, and reviewing the personal statement to underpin fairness for applicants of all backgrounds.

UCAS, of course, a sector agency rather than a government body – its own response to the government PQA consultation – Reimagining UK Admissions was a masterclass in opposing an idea for principled and evidence-based reasons without appearing to challenge the government line.

Clearly UCAS and DfE share an interest in refining an admissions process so students and providers see better outcomes – and in removing stress and burden from an experience that has burnt an indelible mark onto every current or former undergraduate. Today’s publication – Future of Undergraduate Admissions – represents a tentative first step down that road.

Principal subjects

The starting point is the admissions principles that UCAS itself consulted 180 providers, 700 teachers, and 15,000 students on as a part of the work that underpinned Reimagining. Rooted in the seminal 2004 Schwartz Review of admissions, these had a slight motherhood-and-apple-pie vibe to them (is anyone really not in favour of encouraging students to explore a wide range of post-18 options?) but also included some challenging messaging on:

transparency about entry conditions, along with how offers and decisions are made

The new report begins to operationalise these aspirations through five practice based sections – on references, entry grades, personal statements, personalisation, and widening access. We can also look forward to UCAS engagement on the way predicted grades are used, the admissions experiences of international students, and better support for non-traditional applicants (specifically those looking for apprenticeships rather than conventional university courses.

Reference needed

UCAS forms include a section for an academic referee – usually a teacher that knows an applicant well (like a form tutor or careers advisor) – to share useful information about the applicant in question. These could probably be more useful to admissions staff than they are – a common complaint is that the content is variable and often highly contextual.

From 2024 UCAS will be replacing the free text box that currently exists with three structured questions:

  • A “general statement” about the school or college
  • Extenuating circumstances that may affect assessment performance
  • An optional statement on “other circumstances” that it is felt a higher education provider should be aware of.

UCAS will be adapting resources aimed at referees – and I would assume that guidance would also appear for admissions staff.

Entry realism and personal statements

As an applicant you are tempted to see the need for “three As or above” as set in stone, but the reality of who actually gets onto a course and with what grades is quite an eye opener. There’s data on this squirrelled away on the Unistats dataset (which DK had a play with a while back), and UCAS has access to more detailed information in a similar style which is already available in part to advisors and will be made available to applicants while logged into UCAS as a new service coming later this year.

But as an applicant your big worry is the personal statement. However much admissions staff actually use these, there is the perception that these are a hugely important part of an applicant’s attempt to prove their suitability for a course. It is stressful, and particularly so for non-traditional entrants – even though there is evidence that applicants like the idea that their own voice and personality can shine through, if you haven’t got access to advice and guidance (and frankly, the full panoply of embedded upper-middle class experiences and advantages) this can be a painful experience.

There’s no immediate changes here – the personal statement will remain in the current format for now, though there is longer term interest in structured prompts. Motivation, preparedness (at both specific course and general higher study levels), other experiences, extenuating circumstances, and preferred learning styles seem to be the favourites from admissions teams – though we should apologies to all the learning and teaching professionals who exploded at the mention of the (thoroughly discredited) language of learning styles.

Anything you want to feed back on this potential change in approach – which won’t be in use until the 2025 cycle at the earliest – can be shared through a UCAS survey.

Access and personalisation

UCAS has a lot of good advice available to potential applicants – the plan going forward is to use a personalisation approach to cut through the “overwhelming” data to get to useable insights. In particular, there is a lot available on the relationship between qualifications and higher education entry – the example given is the number of non-maths focused courses that require the equivalent of a grade 6 at GCSE. The six-question “Career Quiz” is already used by those making post 16 choices – UCAS will add to this with a more detailed course recommendation tool which is currently on trial with a small number of year 13 students.

And 2023 will also see the launch of a UCAS Outreach Connection Service – continuing from existing work on the Fair Access Programme, to help collect schools and colleges to the guidance and support available from higher education providers and third-sector organisations.

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