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Is the admissions system ready for reform?

With calls for a post-qualification admissions system, greater transparency around unconditional university offers, and the need for a more ambitious contextual admissions strategy – is the current admissions process fit for purpose or is it ready for a refresh? June Hughes, University of Derby Secretary and Registrar, discusses the complexity of the university system.


A Level Results Day is one of the biggest days in the higher education academic calendar; the day when students learn the fate of their grades and institutions get a clearer picture of the number of university places filled for the next year.

The impact on young people and universities is huge, but is the current admissions system geared up to cope with the pressure?

For many years, there has been what is known as the ‘summer scramble’ – the rush for students to find a university and the competition by universities to fill places. For some, years of hard work, planning and preparation can amount to one day and a very short timeframe for students to make a life-changing decision in a process which feels extremely unnatural.

One of the biggest weaknesses of the current admissions system is that students are inevitably forced to make last-minute snap decisions. Many decide they want to start university after receiving results and so they often end up visiting universities last minute, or panic when they don’t get the required grades and choose a university they hadn’t even looked at before.

However, despite the urgency of the Clearing process and results day, there has definitely been a shift in the way students take up university places, which is something I have noticed during the 30 years I have worked in higher education. Students are much more well informed and savvy. I believe they do now shop around and ‘trade up’ when they get better results than expected and both parents and students do their research and do size universities up, which means many students come into results day well-informed and in a strong position.

Last year, 66,770 people found places at UK universities using the Clearing process, and this year an estimated 80,000 students are expected to take up places through the system, according to UCAS. This shows the scale of the operation, but whether the majority of activity has to take place within such a small window, and whether the system is working the best it possibly can to support this, is up for debate.

Post-qualifications admission system

There has been talk of a post-qualification admissions (PQA) system – a process where students apply for university places after gaining their results – for many years, but no serious decisions have yet materialised.

People can see the attractiveness of a PQA system, but getting the whole education sector (schools, colleges and universities) to align to enable this is not easy. We also have to consider that for the past few years, some universities have depended on Clearing to fill their courses, so it comes as no surprise that institutions are nervous of making such a change.

However, the advantages of waiting until students have their results before applying means there would be no predicted offers and students would be in a better position to consider what they really want and what is best for them. 

Earlier this year, the University and College Union (UCU) published a report putting together a case for reforming higher education admissions, calling for post-qualification applications to be introduced. The report proposes three key phases of the system: supporting choice making (which would run from Year 10 to up to and after final examinations prior to higher education application), application and decision making (students would receive their decisions in the third week of September and applicants will be placed by the end of September), before entering higher education in the first week of November.

Universities UK is conducting a ‘fair admissions review’, to ensure admissions practices are fair, transparent and operating in the best interests of students, and the Office for Students has also stated it is undertaking a review of the process, which I welcome.

It is promising to see discussions taking place about refreshing the admissions process and timelines – there is room for improvement. For institutions that are less keen about transforming the whole cycle, it would be worth discussing whether shifting some of the goal posts for particular pressure points could help ease the system.

Offer-making practices

There is also the overhanging issue of unconditional offers, which due to a rapid rise over the last year has meant the press has been dominated with stories on the topic.

If a PQA system was to be introduced, then these offers would no longer exist. Unconditional offers have been criticised by schools for removing the incentive for pupils to achieve their best performance, while on the flip side some universities say they help integrate potential students earlier in the process, as well as lessening stress. If a new system was to be imposed, it would be interesting to see the impact this would have.

There has also been much debate over contextual admissions and whether the current admissions system truly reflects a fair process for students, particularly those from a disadvantaged background.

There are many students who are less familiar with higher education; their parents may not have attended, they may not be in a financially stable position, and do not have a support system around them. At Derby, nearly 21 per cent of our full-time undergraduates are from the lowest higher education participation neighbourhoods and are often the first of their family to go to university. Contextual admissions already take place at universities, and have done for many years, and are crucial in helping to improve social mobility. 

It can be argued that introducing a PQA system would give students more time to do their research and find universities suitable for them. However, those who do not have stable support networks around them, may still find themselves searching last minute for a university and could miss out on gaining a place.

A PQA model might favour those students who are more familiar with higher education than those who are not, so from a social mobility perspective, I do have concerns. I can see the PQA system being attractive, but we have to be careful that in removing what we think is one problem, we create another.

Understanding the needs and priorities of learners

I believe now is the right time for reform in the admissions system, but changes will only happen if schools, colleges and universities are serious about making progress and can work together to do so.

We need to consider what it really feels like to be an applicant. We have to step inside their shoes – when and what decisions are they making, what feels right, what support, guidance and advice do they need, and at what point in the cycle?

Universities have to ensure the journey and process for applicants is as smooth as possible, which is why a holistic approach is needed. The quality of the whole student experience is vital to universities. We want to ensure that our students have the resources and support they need to enable them to successfully complete their courses.

In addition, I believe the higher education sector should make educating students about the admissions process, and what support is available to those going through it, a top priority – there is definitely a need for effective public understanding.

Universities, like Derby, aim to provide as much support as possible so students are clear with their choices, they understand the admissions process and what Clearing means, but the sector is rapidly changing and we have to ensure students understand the challenges and changes too.

Having worked in the higher education sector for three decades, it has never been more competitive than now. The marketplace is dynamic and fast-paced and the challenge is ensuring the correct systems are in place to support our students now and in the future.

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