How we can make university admissions fairer

What's the point of published entry requirements if they don't apply to all students?


Students should apply to university after they receive their exam results, says a new report released today by my union, the University and College Union.

As part of the report, we polled staff who work directly with university applications. Some help students to consider their post-school options and others work for universities.

Over two-thirds of them (70 per cent) back a complete overhaul of the current system, which would see students applying to university only after they have received their exam results.

We believe that moving to a system which relies on actual achievement, rather than predicted grades, would be fairer. It would ensure that the brightest students have a better chance of getting into the university that best suits their talents.

An overhaul of the system would address the problem of inaccurate predicted grades and abolish the need for unconditional offers for university places, which are under increasing scrutiny.

The problem with inaccurately predicted results is quite staggering. Only half of final A-level results match the estimates made by teachers earlier in the academic year. And almost one in 10 predicted result is out by more than a whole grade.

The problem has been getting worse in recent years. Leading social commentator Danny Dorling said recently that the UK should ‘follow much of the rest of the civilised world and make university offers based on what young people actually achieve’.

He also said that schools’ predictions are becoming less accurate because as schools find it harder to predict how well their students will do, they err towards optimism.

His complaints are backed up by analysis from the applications service UCAS. The proportion of students who achieve the ABB grades they are predicted is falling year on year.

Just one in five students (21 per cent) predicted to achieve ABB or better in 2014 actually did, compared to almost a third (32.2 per cent) in 2010.

Year % of English 18-year-olds predicted ABB who actually attained those grades
2010 32.2
2011 29.6
2012 25.9
2013 23.2
2014 21.0

UCAS End Of Cycle Report 2014 page 67

By changing to a post-qualification system, we would also get rid of unconditional university offers. Recent analysis suggests that the number of unconditional offers is on the increase as universities seek to secure student numbers.

Unconditional offers can place undue pressure on young people to accept an offer and we have heard of incidents where people are being phoned up and told that their offer will be made unconditional if they accept it as a firm choice.

What is the point of published entry requirements if they don’t apply to all students?

While there will be opponents to change, particularly change as radical as this, it is worth noting that both the previous and current heads of the university access regulator OFFA, Sir Martin Harris and Les Ebdon, support the introduction of a post-qualification admissions system.

So changing to a system where students apply after they receive their results means they will be judged accurately on what they have achieved, not guesswork.

They will then be better placed to make choices, and universities will not be able to pressure students into accepting their offer before they know how well they have done.

Delaying this process would also mean that the majority of students applying to university would be over 18. Being a little older, wiser and in receipt of a full set of exam results is surely the most sensible time to make such an important decision?

Angela Nartey is a policy officer at the University and College Union

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.