Universities UK publishes recommendations for reforms to make university admissions fairer and more transparent

Universities UK [UUK] is today [Friday 13 November 2020] publishing its Fair Admissions Review recommendations, which will build greater levels of transparency, trust, and public understanding in admissions practices.

Launched in June 2019, the 18-month review has undertaken an independent and comprehensive analysis of the evidence, involving extensive polling and consultation with students, schools, colleges, recent graduates, employers, and education sector groups.

The Fair Admissions Review, carried out by school, college, university and UCAS leaders, is recommending that the 2004 Schwartz principles on fair university admissions should be updated to make it clear that the best interests of students must always be paramount.

The review recommends that 'conditional unconditional offers' – which assure an applicant of a university place irrespective of their final grades, on the proviso the university is their firm choice – are not always be in the best interests of students, and so do not meet the revised principles.

However, wider unconditional offers are appropriate under certain circumstances where applicants already have the required grades, those applying to courses where decisions have been informed by an interview, audition or additional application procedure (such as a submission of a portfolio or skills test), those applying to study at a university or college with an established policy regarding non-selective admissions to undergraduate programmes, or those requiring special consideration due to illness or disability.

The new code of practice would make clear that the use of any incentives in offer-making should not place any unnecessary pressure on applicants, must be published clearly, consistently, and communicated to applicants in good time. The review recommends that failure to adhere to the proposed code of practice would result in sanctions for higher education providers.

In the longer-term, the Fair Admissions Review recommends that universities should only offer places to students after exam results are known. This will result in greater transparency and confidence in the admissions system, giving students more choice for longer and will be less distracting for them in the lead up to exams. It would also reduce reliance on predicted grades and be fairer for students.

The review has identified, though, that any change to PQA would have implications for school and university timetabling, and could pose challenges for highly selective courses, and when arranging interviews. It may also mean there are fewer teachers available over the summer to help students make decisions, and less time for applicants to respond to offers. UUK is committed to working with the relevant bodies to ensure any unintended consequences are resolved.

It is expected to take at least three years to implement any possible move to PQA. UUK will fully consult and work with universities, schools, UK government and relevant organisations throughout this period to develop and further test the workability of the new approach.

The review is also recommending that better, and more consistent, information is made publicly available by providers on their use of contextual admissions to further boost social mobility and level up opportunity. Previous polling by UUK showed that those who receive contextual offers – offers made with additional consideration towards personal circumstances – are more likely to say that navigating and understanding offer-making is a challenge when applying.

While qualifications and grades are important, applications must be considered alongside other information which helps to identify potential and to widen access to university, while always upholding standards. The review recommends greater focus is given to those on free school meals, facing deprivation, or who are care experienced.

Professor Quintin McKellar CBE, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire, Universities UK's Vice-President for England and Northern Ireland, and Chair of the Fair Admissions Review, said: "There is a shared will across the education sector to ensure that admissions are fair for all - raising students' aspirations and improving their life chances. This review is seeking to build greater levels of transparency, trust, and public understanding in admissions practices.

"On the whole university admissions are seen as fair, but the principles guiding universities should be updated to make it clear that offer-making and practices must always operate in the best interests of students. This means there should be no place for the use of conditional unconditional offers because they can put students under undue pressure.

"There isn't a perfect one-size-fits-all solution for the variety of courses and institutions, but the review has decided it would be fairer for students to receive university places based on exam results, not predictions. Any change to PQA must be taken forward carefully by universities, with further consultation with students, government, and those working across the education sector. We need to be confident that any new process will allow for effective careers advice and support for applicants."

Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK, said: "This major 18-month review has involved in-depth analysis of data and wide-ranging consultation and polling to examine how the admissions system can be improved in the best interest of students.  Universities rightly have autonomy over their admissions policies – this autonomy comes with a responsibility to review and evolve practices and address concerns. These recommendations are a sector-led set of reforms built on evidence from applicants, schools, universities, colleges and UCAS that will lead to a fairer and more transparent admissions system."

Beth Linklater, Assistant Principal, Queen Mary's College, Basingstoke, and Chair of UCAS' Secondary Education Advisory Group, said: "Selecting the right course at the right university is one of the most important decisions many young people will make. Implementation of the review's recommendations should lead to better information being made available for all applicants, including publication of the actual entry grades for courses.

"The education sector should continue to work together to take forward these recommendations and to develop a more joined up approach to careers advice for applicants, particularly those from disadvantaged groups.

"We have explored a range of post-qualifications admission options that could potentially lead to a fairer system in line with the review's principles and I am excited that our recommendation is being taken forward to full consultation."

 

Notes

1.     Universities UK launched its review of fair admissions in June 2019, along with UCAS, school, college, student, and university representatives. These are the members of the Fair admissions review advisory group - Professor Quintin McKellar, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire, replaced Professor Paddy Nixon as chair when he became Vice-Chancellor & President at the University of Canberra in Australia.

2.     UUK's review is UK-wide with the recommendations above applicable UK-wide, with the exception of changes to contextual admissions where several of the proposals are already in place for the Scottish sector.

3.     The proposal on ending conditional unconditional offers and the introduction of the Code of Practice would be subject to full consultation, led by Universities UK, with students and stakeholders over the winter 2020/spring 2021 with a view to coming into effect following the expiry of the Office for Students temporary restriction on these types of offers in September 2021.

(Office for Students Regulatory notice 5: Condition Z3: Temporary provisions for sector stability and integrity. https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/media/e2e8c6e5-b713-416a-8abc-cb40fbed6947/regulatory-notice-5-temporary-condition-z3.pdf)

The remit and ownership of the code of practice would be part of this consultation however the Fair Admissions Review recommends that the code should be owned by UUK with adherence part of UCAS' terms and conditions.

4.     The proposal for PQA will be subject of full consultation, led by Universities UK, with stakeholders and students over the winter 2020/spring 2021. Any changes would come into effect for applicants starting at university in autumn 2023 at the earliest.


5.     Earlier this year, Savanta ComRes conducted interviews online with 1,499 adults aged 18+ who have applied to a UK university/college/other higher education institution between 2015-2019 and have been UK residents at the time of applying. Full tables are available at www.comresglobal.com and shorter form findings can found in this pdf.


6.     A total of 181 higher education providers, schools, colleges, current students, recent graduates, parents, employers, representative groups and other bodies responded to UUK's call for evidence earlier this year, which informed the recommendations of the 'Fair admissions review' advisory group.

7.     Universities UK will be running an online conference on this topic on Wednesday 24 February 2021. To find out more details or to register, please click here

8.     Universities UK is the collective voice of 140 universities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Its mission is to create the conditions for UK universities to be the best in the world; maximising their positive impact locally, nationally and globally. Universities UK acts on behalf of universities, represented by their heads of institution. Visit: www.universitiesuk.ac.uk  


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Steven Jefferies

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