Today I want to update both Houses on policy developments for reform within the university admissions system.
On Friday 13 November, I announced the Department’s intention to explore a post-qualification admissions (PQA) system for higher education, where students would receive and accept offers after they have received their level 3 (A-level or equivalent) grades.
The Government’s manifesto committed us to “improve the application and offer system” and in a way that is “underpinned by a commitment to fairness, quality of learning and teaching, and access”. Evidence shows that the current admissions system falls short of this commitment, which is why we are now exploring how a new system could work. We want to ensure the system works for disadvantaged students and facilitates the levelling up that we all want to see, so that everyone with the qualifications and ability to benefit from higher education can do so, no matter what their background.
If we were starting from scratch today, no one would design the higher education admissions system we have now—a system which, with its reliance on predicted grades, systematically favours the most advantaged. While the higher education provider base has expanded significantly in recent decades, with the emergence of new providers and courses, the admissions system has remained largely unchanged since the 1960s. The current system lacks transparency, and it works against the interests of some students, notably high achieving disadvantaged students. In recent years we have also seen the emergence of undesirable admissions practices, such as the mass use of unconditional offers.
We know, due to the pandemic, that students have experienced considerable disruption to their education this year. We believe that the unique set of circumstances students faced could have been better dealt with by a fairer higher education admissions system.
A broad range of interested parties across the education system, and from across the political spectrum—including the Sutton Trust, Policy Exchange, and the University and College Union—have been calling for a post-qualification admissions system to support social mobility and to remove the complexity and undesirable practices of the current system. According to a recent poll by the Sutton Trust, two thirds of this year’s university entrants (66%) are in favour of removing predicted grades from university admissions and making decisions based on actual results. Universities UK has also confirmed its desire to work with the Government to explore moving to such a system.
The Government will therefore consult universities, colleges, schools, students, and other interested parties to develop a potential model of reform over the coming months. We will work across the sectors to design a more efficient and transparent system that helps all students, especially those who are disadvantaged, access the course and institution that best suits their aspirations and capabilities. This is a set of reforms we would look to deliver during the course of this Parliament, but it will not affect students over the current academic year.