Since UCAS was created in 1993, it has administered a system of competitive applications from students in which universities choose whom to admit. Students must submit various types of information including their predicted exam grades, a ‘personal statement’ and academic references, after which universities assess the information provided by candidates and decide whether to offer them a place. This admissions system has remained almost unchanged for the past three decades, but this inertia should not necessarily be interpreted as an indication that the UCAS system is working well.
Politicians from both major parties have raised serious concerns in recent months about university admissions practices, while the Office for Students (OfS) has launched a review of the entire admissions process in its capacity as regulator of the Higher Education (HE) sector. Given this intense pressure, maintaining the status quo is no longer an option. The new rules on admissions proposed by the OfS last month to ensure that universities demonstrate a ‘socially responsible approach’ during the COVID-19 crisis shows that it is perfectly feasible to change the admissions system – even at short notice. It is now simply a question of which changes ministers and regulators wish to make once the crisis subsides.
This report starts from the widely accepted premise that HE admissions must be:
- Fair – every student, irrespective of their income or wealth, should have access to the same universities and degree courses;
- Transparent – every student should have access to the information they need to make informed choices about the different options available to them;
- Equitable – every student, regardless of their background, should be able to compete for a place at university on a ‘level playing field’ with other students.
The report analyses the three issues that have attracted the most attention in terms of their respective impact on the fairness, transparency and equity of the admissions system: the use of predicted grades for university applications; the growth of ‘unconditional offers’ from universities; and the barriers facing disadvantaged students.
The use of predicted grades
According to UCAS, only 21 per cent of applicants met or exceeded their predicted grades in 2019. In addition, 43 per cent of accepted applicants had a difference of three or more A level grades compared to their predicted grades – an increase of 5 percentage points since 2018. Previous research has also shown that high-achieving students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to be under-predicted than other students. Furthermore, the whole notion of an application process based on nothing more than guesswork from teachers is plainly unfair on students and creates inequities when selecting, and applying for, universities because schools and colleges with the most resources and best connections will inevitably navigate the admissions system more successfully. The significant workload that predicted grades place on teachers, schools and colleges should also not be underestimated. A recent review of admissions practices in 29 countries found that none of them apart from the UK offered university places on the basis of predicted grades, demonstrating how our system is an outlier by international standards.
Some observers see ‘post qualification applications’ (PQA), where prospective students would not submit their application until after they receive their exam results, as the solution to concerns over the use of predicted grades. Almost ten years ago, UCAS put forward this exact proposal on the basis that it would “remove unpredictability from the process and be fairer to all applicants”. However, the logistical challenges that a PQA system would face – particularly the major changes required to A-level examination dates and the start of the university term – meant that UCAS had to abandon their plans in the face of opposition from universities, schools, the examination regulator Ofqual and awarding bodies. Clare Marchant, chief executive of UCAS, has said that, while UCAS is not opposed to PQA in principle, it would require a huge shake-up at a time when schools and universities have “much more important things to deal with”. This may be true, but it does not avoid the fact that basing an admissions system on notoriously inaccurate predicted grades is neither fair, transparent or equitable.
The growth of ‘unconditional offers’
Until a few years ago, ‘unconditional offers’ – when an HE institution guarantees the applicant a place before their exam results are known – were hardly mentioned, with a mere 1.1 per cent of applicants receiving an offer with any unconditional component as recently as 2013. The same cannot be said today. Last year, 38 per cent of applicants received such an offer. The biggest driving force behind this rise has been the increasing use of ‘conditional unconditional offers’ – when an offer is originally ‘conditional’ but is converted to an unconditional offer if the applicant selects that university as their first choice. These were given to 25 per cent of applicants in 2019 – around three times the figure in 2016. Almost two-thirds of HE institutions now use unconditional offers as part of their recruitment strategy. For example, the University of Suffolk gave offers with an unconditional component to 85 per cent of applicants last year (up from 0.5 per cent in 2013), while institutions such as the University of Roehampton and Falmouth University gave such offers to around 75 per cent of applicants.
Senior politicians and the OfS have been highly critical of unconditional offers, describing them as ‘pressure-selling’ by universities. In his first major speech as Education Secretary last year, Gavin Williamson said there is “nothing to justify” their “explosion in numbers”. Even so, many universities have ignored these criticisms, with one vice-chancellor even describing such comments as “a very dangerous, authoritarian course”. Far from curbing their use of conditional offers, the HE sector has instead chosen to hide behind the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 to shield themselves from government action on this matter. To avoid further scrutiny over unconditional offers, some universities are just swapping them for other similar strategies. For example, the University of Birmingham – one of the most prolific users of unconditional offers in recent years – has simply replaced their unconditional offers with a new ‘attainment offer’ of three grade C’s at A-level, which applicants would only receive if they turned down all their other offers. This ploy has been described as “a backdoor unconditional offer. It’s a game they are playing to scoop the punters.”
Perhaps the worst aspect of unconditional offers is that universities continue to use them despite being aware of the harm they cause. In 2019, 43 per cent of applicants holding a conditional offer missed their predicted A-level performance by three or more grades, but this rises to 57 per cent for applicants with an unconditional offer (an increase of five percentage points since 2018 and almost 20 percentage points since 2013). In addition, analysis by the OfS estimated that unconditional offers lead to a 10 per cent rise in the drop-out rate for young HE applicants. School and college leaders have also voiced their frustration, saying unconditional offers have “more to do with the scramble to put ‘bums on seats’ than the best interests of students” and that “it results in many taking their foot off the pedal, doing less well than they should, and potentially damaging their employment prospects.”
The barriers facing disadvantaged applicants
The latest annual review from the OfS drew attention to the fact that “although there has been a large increase in the proportion of people going to college or university over the last two decades, this expansion has not benefited all equally.” Pupils who claim Free School Meals (FSM) at secondary school are almost 20 percentage points less likely to enter HE by the age of 19 compared to other pupils, and this gap is now wider than it was a decade ago. This disparity is even more pronounced for ‘high tariff’ (the most selective) HE institutions. The increase of 1.7 percentage-points in the proportion of FSM pupils attending these institutions has been dwarfed by the 3 percentage-point rise for other pupils, causing the gap between the two groups to widen even further. ‘POLAR’ data presents a similar picture, with applicants from the most advantaged areas being five times more likely to attend a high tariff institution.
UCAS produce their own ‘multiple equality measure’ that aims to combine the effects of other equality measures into a single value. Over the last decade, the HE entry rate for the most disadvantaged students rose from 9 to 13 per cent but grew from 51 to 58 per cent for the most advantaged students. At high tariff institutions, the proportion of 18-year-old entrants from the most disadvantaged backgrounds has increased by just a single percentage point in the last decade from 1.1 to 2.1 per cent, while the entry rate for the most advantaged students has grown by almost four percentage points. In short, HE applicants from the most advantaged backgrounds unquestionably dominate entry to the most selective institutions.
Several initiatives have sought to help more students from disadvantaged backgrounds into university. This includes the ‘access and participation plans’ that HE institutions must produce for the OfS alongside the £60 million provided annually by the OfS to support the National Collaborative Outreach Programme. Nevertheless, it is unclear how much of the ‘outreach’ and ‘access’ activities by universities make a difference to prospective students. A recent study of different interventions (e.g. summer schools) concluded that “there is still a lack of available evidence on the impact …on actual enrolment rates”. There is also a risk that, in some cases, outreach activities might perpetuate disadvantages rather than tackle them because their delivery is often restricted to particular cities or regions.
Contextual admissions – where the social background or characteristics of an applicant is considered during the application process – are frequently cited as a way to improve the prospects of disadvantaged students. However, some universities do not use contextual admissions and the OfS has found that most of them “make no reference in their admissions information to how they use contextual data or whether they make contextual offers.” This is compounded by the lack of agreement among HE institutions on which measures or datasets should be used to assess applicants’ socioeconomic or educational disadvantage. As if the variation between institutions was not problematic enough, the variation within institutions can make life even harder for applicants as there is no requirement for universities to operate a consistent policy across its own departments. Even if an institution or department lists the factors that it considers, they typically do not explain the weighting attached to each factor or the extent of any subsequent grade reductions. The inevitable consequence of the inconsistent and opaque use of contextual admissions is that applicants who cannot access the necessary support and information are more likely to struggle to identify the right degree for them.
There are several other aspects of the admissions process that generate more obstacles for disadvantaged young people. As far back as 2004, the ‘Schwartz Review’ highlighted the problems with using personal statements on the UCAS application form, including the fact that “some staff and parents advise to the extent that the personal statement cannot be seen as the applicant’s own work.” Recent analysis of over 300 personal statements submitted to Russell Group universities by applicants with similar levels of academic achievement found that private school pupils had statements that were “carefully crafted, written in an academically appropriate way, and filled with high status, relevant activities”, which suggests they received help from the school they attended – something that other schools, especially in more deprived areas, will struggle to match.
The use of entrance exams is another significant barrier for less privileged applicants. Oxford and Cambridge make extensive use of written tests to “help tutors assess whether candidates have the skills and aptitudes needed”, while subjects such as law, mathematics and medicine use entrance tests across the HE sector. Applicants who have access to additional forms of practice, support and tuition when preparing for these tests – either through their school / college or paid for by their family – will almost certainly use this to their advantage. The same goes for the presence of interviews in the selection process (especially at Oxford and Cambridge). There is no formal process within an interview for an applicant’s background to be taken into account. Research evidence suggests that tutors are susceptible to numerous biases, such as giving higher ratings to applicants with similar attitudes and demographic characeristics to them. Applicants from wealthier backgrounds can also invest in ‘Oxbridge preparation programmes’, which provide extensive support with personal statements and interview skills at a cost of hundreds, if not thousands of pounds. Such programmes further emphasise why the continued use of entrance tests and interviews in the admissions process is manifestly unfair and inequitable.
In recent months, both the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and the OfS have referred to the importance of ‘trust’ in the context of university admissions because they realise how crucial it is that students, parents and teachers trust the admissions process when so much money and so many hopes and aspirations rest on its shoulders. In light of this, it is deeply concerning how wealth and privilege continue to unduly influence who gets accepted onto university degrees, particularly at the most prestigious institutions. This inevitably results in an overwhelming sense of unfairness as well as risking a catastrophic loss of trust – not just in the admissions process, but in the education system as a whole.
The reduction in autonomy over admissions proposed by the OfS in response to the outbreak of COVID-19 is intended to prevent universities from undermining students’ interests and threatening the stability of the HE sector during the crisis, yet the protection of students and maintaining the stability of the sector should be permanent features of our admissions system rather than temporary measures. A fundamental change is therefore needed to make sure that the admissions system prioritises the interests of students, not universities, after the current crisis is over. To this end, it is necessary for universities to give up some of the autonomy they have in relation to how they attract and select applicants each year.
The analysis in this report shows that a reduction in autonomy for universities is a prerequisite to achieving the goal of an admissions system that ensures every university and every degree is within reach of every student, regardless of their background or circumstances. Should this goal be reached, we will finally be able to claim that this country has a university admissions system built on fairness, transparency and equity.
Autonomy for universities over their admissions practices may seem intuitively appealing but the way that many universities are exercising their freedoms is undermining the interests of students as well as the integrity of our HE system. Consequently, this report recommends that, in return for the financial support that they are receiving from government to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, universities should be required to accept a new model for the whole admissions cycle that will directly address the concerns aired by politicians, regulators, teachers and the general public in relation to predicted grades, unconditional offers and the plight of disadvantaged students.
NEW ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES FOR THE OFFICE FOR STUDENTS
- RECOMMENDATION 1: The Office for Students should run a consultation process to select a ‘Designated Admissions Body’ (DAB) such as UCAS to operate the new admissions system for undergraduates.
- RECOMMENDATION 2: The Office for Students should introduce a new ‘condition of registration’ that applies to all HE providers. The new condition will specify that every provider must use the admissions system operated by the DAB.
MORE TRANSPARENCY FOR APPLICANTS
- RECOMMENDATION 3: At the beginning of the new application cycle, universities will be required to publish a ‘standard qualification requirement’ (SQR) for each undergraduate degree. Once published, the SQR cannot be altered by universities at any point in the application cycle, and no student can be accepted onto a degree if they fail to meet the SQR.
- RECOMMENDATION 4: Alongside the publication by universities of their SQR for each undergraduate degree, they must also state the maximum number of students they can accept onto each degree course without compromising the quality of education they provide.
- RECOMMENDATION 5: Following the publication of the SQR for every degree, a new national contextual offer (NCO) will be applied to the SQRs at all universities. The NCO will automatically reduce the grades required by applicants facing the greatest level of disadvantage, including care leavers, those living in deprived areas and students who attend a low-performing secondary school or college. The NCO will therefore create an ‘adjusted qualification requirement’ (AQR) for applicants who are deemed to be disadvantaged in some way.
A FAIRER AND MORE EQUITABLE WAY TO ALLOCATE UNIVERSITY PLACES
- RECOMMENDATION 6: ‘Personal statements’, references and entrance tests will be removed from the application process because they bias the whole admissions system against the most disadvantaged applicants.
- RECOMMENDATION 7: Predicted grades will no longer feature in the application process. Instead, applicants will be free to select any 10 university degrees and rank them in order of preference.
- RECOMMENDATION 8: On results day, university places will be automatically allocated based on students’ lists of preferred courses. For courses that are oversubscribed, places will be allocated by lottery among all the applicants who reach or surpass the SQR (or AQR, where applicable). For courses that are undersubscribed, all students who reach or surpass their SQR (or AQR) will be admitted.