Labour have announced plans to overhaul the university application process if they win the next general election. Currently students can apply to up to five universities in the Autumn before they receive their grades in the Summer – around 6 weeks before they move to university.
Labour would like to change this process, removing Clearing, predicted grades and unconditional offers, instead creating a ‘fairer’ Post Qualification Admissions System. Under this system students would only apply to university AFTER receiving their grades.
One of the main reasons labour are calling for a PQA System is the issues surrounding predicted grades. Currently students apply to university with their predicted grades, this has increasingly come under fire due to inaccurate predictions. The Department for Business Innovation and Skills have found that just 51.7% of predicted grades were accurate, with 41.7% being over-predicted and 6.6% under-predicted. Students whose grades have been overpredicted are forced to enter Clearing to secure a place, and students who’ve been unpredicted often cannot get a place at a better university as by the time Clearing comes around spaces have been allocated.
Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Education Angela Rayner stated that “predicted grades are wrong in the vast majority of cases, and disadvantaged students, in particular, are losing out on opportunities on the basis of those inaccurate predictions.”
The controversial practice of unconditional offers would be ended under Labour’s plans. Students who receive unconditional offers are offered a place at the university regardless of their grades, with 34% of applicants in the 2017/18 cycle receiving unconditional offers.
Universities have been accused of using unconditional offers as a way to get students through the door. Research shows that 23% of students will not meet their predicted grades, with students slacking as they know their university offer is concrete. Critics of the system argue that unconditional offers have created a “two-tier system” meaning that some students will arrive at university with a “free pass” with others having had the “bar set high”.
Changing the admissions process would eliminate Clearing. At present if students miss out on the required grades for their university they can get an offer at universities that have spaces available through Clearing. As of 22/08/2019 a record number of 50,540 students were placed through UCAS clearing after applying then receiving their results, and 9,060 people applied directly to clearing.
Who else supports a PQA System?
Labour are not alone in calling for the change, Universities UK recently launched a review of admissions, involving UCAS, students, and senior representatives from schools, colleges and universities, and will be exploring post-qualification admissions as part of the review.
The University and College Union have long campaigned for admissions reform, their general secretary Jo Grady has said: "allowing people to apply after they receive their results would help level the playing field for students, remove the problems associated with unconditional offers and end the chaotic clearing scramble.”
"The current system, based on inaccurately predicted results, is failing students and it is time we adopted the type of system used around the rest of the world where university offers are based on actual achievements instead of guesswork.”
Can it be done?
A PQA System would require 700,000 university places to be allocated in a matter of weeks as opposed to the current six month period. The General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders has said that changes to the current application process would changing the "represent a significant and complex change". He believes that "it would be extremely difficult to manage the entire applications process in the few weeks between A-level results in mid-August and the beginning of university terms in September or October and it is likely that we would need to rethink the entire calendar”.
What do UCAS have to say?
UCAS have responded to Labour’s announcement stating that under the current application timetable changing to a PQA system is not feasible. UCAS Chief Executive Clare Marchant believes that Labour’s plan would “significantly disadvantage underrepresented and disabled students” if exam and university calendars weren’t changed.
“Young people need their teachers’ support when making application choices, and this isn’t readily available to all at the scale required when schools and colleges are closed during August. Once students have a place, they need time to find accommodation, finalise their financial support, and to prepare for their studies. Universities and colleges need time for interviews, auditions, and considering contextual information about applicants, and time to put in place support services to help care leavers, first in family, and disabled students, transition into higher education.”
Any major changes to the application process would take years to put in place and would require the cooperation of numerous parties - UCAS, schools, colleges, Student Finance, universities, etc. It's unlikely that Labour's proposal will be implemented any time soon.
By Clarissa Ducie