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  • Jess Reid

U.K. universities and the broken admissions system: Lessons to learn

Updated: Mar 22

With A-Level exams called off again this year, a tremendous opportunity to think on the mistakes of last year and create a fairer admissions system is in hand. It’s clear that the British university admissions system is plagued with problems at the best of times, let alone when a pandemic has wreaked havoc on predictions. Back in August 2020, the UCL Institute of Education found that only 16% of A-level grades were accurately predicted. They also modelled two other methods of prediction but found whilst they were able to increase the accuracy of predictions, 75% were still inaccurate. Clearly, prediction is not a fair or accurate model for pupils or universities. Something needs to change - but what?


A University of Manchester statue of John Dalton sat down with an image of a book overlapping it.

How does it currently work?


First, a quick recap for anyone unfamiliar with the current system.

  • In the beginning of their final year, A-Level students are given predicted grades by their teachers.

  • Universities then make decisions based on these grades, a personal statement written by the student, academic references from the school, contextual information about the student’s background.

  • England, Wales and Northern Ireland are the only countries that use a predicted grade system which has many critics, most notably because - as UCL showed - predicted grades can be highly inaccurate.


In fact, back in 2019, further research from UCAS outlined that 79% of 18-year-olds who are accepted into university with at least 3 A-Levels had their grades over-predicted, whereas only 8% were under-predicted. What’s worse, those in state schools were more likely to be under-predicted. About one in four high-achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds who went on to get AAB grades or better were under-predicted under the current system.


Access to higher education (HE) is immensely valuable to individuals, as it can affect potential salary and employability, especially in management roles or their equivalent. Life-long net earnings for graduates are 28% higher for men and 53% higher for women compared to those who do not get a degree. Widening access to the top universities by making it easier for under-represented groups to apply and get a place is also critical for increasing social mobility. By choosing our educational priorities carefully, we can start to redress regional inequalities in educational attainment, poverty and job security.


Widening participation in HE is a balance between both schools and universities. The three main barriers to getting into university are whether students have the required predicted grades, whether they then apply and whether they are offered a place. Take entry to the University of Oxford as an example. Pupils from the most deprived schools who had the grades to apply are around half as likely to apply to Oxford as a pupil from a private school, and even those who did apply are nearly three times less likely to receive an offer than a pupil from a private school.


This problem is exacerbating regional inequalities, as those from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to reach their potential. The solution must be twofold - schools can do more to help pupils realise their potential when applying to universities, but also universities need to do more when receiving applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. The solution is strikingly obvious.


Why Will a Post-Qualification Admissions System Help?


In stark contrast to our current mess, Post Qualification Admissions (PQA) is the standard method of accessing HE around the world. It is a system whereby offers are made after upper-secondary (the equivalent of sixth form) qualifications have been awarded. Different countries have different admission cycle calendars but offers are still given after qualifications have been awarded. In Italy and Spain, for example, upper secondary exams are taken between May and June like the UK. Students then apply between July and August and universities offer between August and September. In their aforementioned review, of all the countries the UCU looked at, these systems would disrupt the admissions timetable the least if adopted by the UK.


A post-qualification system removes problematic predicted grades which can aid high attaining lower income students who tend to have under-predicted grades. The correlation between low socio-economic status or state schools and under-prediction is exacerbating regional inequalities by limiting groups from the most selective universities and courses. Overworked teachers have sometimes only known the student for weeks before making predictions, making them wholly unreliable. Simply receiving under-predicted grades can discourage students from applying to top universities, thus missing the opportunities these degrees can offer.


By introducing a PQA system, students can dependably apply to universities they have the ability to access with their grades already in hand. This eliminates teacher bias and also gives the universities reliable information on potential candidates. Applying after receiving grades also gives perspective on where to apply, making sure those who deserve places at top universities apply for them.


This also avoids the need for our current ‘adjustment system’ where those who got higher than they were predicted can try and get a place at a better university. The fact that adjustment exists is symptomatic of our failed system of university admissions. PQA is not perfect, but it is fairer, with students and universities able to make more informed decisions compared to our current system.


If access to higher education is a gateway to increase social mobility in the UK, making the admissions system fairer and easier to navigate should be at the top of the agenda. After the debacle of the last two years concerning exams and grades, it is clear our system needs changing in line with other countries. Instead of using an outdated and unreliable system of predicted grades, a move to a post-qualification system would allow both universities and students to make informed choices leading to better social mobility and mitigating regional inequalities.

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