The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service’s decision to scrap proposals to allow students to apply to university after getting their grades, is a missed opportunity to create a fairer admissions process and is a major step backwards in the struggle to develop a system which puts the interests of learners above the convenience of providers.
A UCAS review of the proposals, first published in October, found that nearly three-quarters of higher education institutions believed the proposals were unworkable, while 61 per cent of schools and colleges said they were unviable. Although many respondents felt a post-qualifications admissions process would be fairer, the review cited widespread concerns about the practicalities of implementation.
While acknowledging the huge logistical challenges they posed, NIACE supported the changes when they were first proposed, arguing that a post-results process would be simpler, less complex and, in principle, fairer than the present system, in which applicants provide a combination of predicted grades, personal statements and teacher references. NIACE believes that the current system favours applicants from schools which appreciate how to ‘work the system’ over adult applicants.
A post-results system would benefit students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who often do not believe they will get into top universities and whose exam performance is more likely to exceed their predicted results. It would also give students more opportunity to research their course options and prepare their applications, and, crucially, more confidence in what they are capable of achieving.
The decision follows the publication of the latest UCAS admissions figures for full-time students which show applications for mature students significantly down for the sixth month in a row. These figures are yet more bad news on social mobility and NIACE fears that the abandonment of the PQA plan represents a missed opportunity to overhaul an admissions system which favours the already privileged, and to put the needs of students, rather than institutions, at its heart.
Although UCAS’s move to replace the clearing process, which matches students without places to courses with vacancies, with ‘a fair, managed, online process, catering for applicants who want access to the system’ is welcome, it falls some way short of levelling the playing field for less advantaged applicants.
Implementation of these changes would have posed major practical challenges for institutions and opposition was always going to be vocal. However, while the proposals may not have been perfect or in the immediate interests of every player in the sector, the creation of a more fit-for-purpose, flexible and adult-friendly student-centred admissions process is overdue and would, in the long term, be in the best interests of all students.