Most university applicants support overhaul of admissions system, research finds

By Eleanor Busby, PA Education Correspondent
·3-min read

The majority of young people who applied to university this year think it would be fairer to overhaul the system so students only submit an application once they have received their final grades, a survey suggests.

Working-class applicants are more likely to say they would have applied to a more selective university if they had known their A-level results when making decisions, according to Sutton Trust research.

The report suggests most applicants (69%) received a place at their top university this year, but working-class students are less likely to have done so compared to their middle-class peers (63% compared to 72%).

Two in three (66%) of university applicants said they favour a move to a post-qualification admissions (PQA) system rather than university offers based on predicted grades, the poll found.

The survey, of more than 500 university applicants aged 17 to 19 by YouthSight, found only 13% think making decisions based on actual results would be less fair than the current system.

“The wake of this year’s exam results controversy provides an important opportunity to take another look at reforming the system,” the report says.

This summer, final grades were awarded on the basis of school assessments, or the results of an Ofqual-developed algorithm, after exams were cancelled due to Covid-19.

But only 38% of applicants received grades that matched their teachers’ predictions, the poll suggests.

Students from state schools were more likely to be underpredicted than those from private schools (32% compared to 26%), it found.

A system of PQA could have a positive impact on university access, with lower-income students applying to universities that better match their grades, the report says.

The Sutton Trust charity believes the Government’s forthcoming strategy paper represents an opportunity for a discussion about PQA and how to change the system for the better, most likely from 2022 onwards.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: “The utter chaos of this year’s university admissions exposed major flaws with the system that are due principally to our reliance on predicted grades.

“PQA would benefit high achieving low-income students as their grades are often underpredicted. PQA would also result in admissions becoming more efficient, simpler and fairer for all students.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Teachers work hard and conscientiously to provide accurate predicted grades for students who are applying to university, but no system which relies on individual estimates of how students will perform in exams can possibly be an exact science.

“There are significant practical issues which would need to be overcome in order to provide sufficient time for the university application process to take place between grades being awarded and the beginning of the university year, but it cannot be beyond the wit of man to find solutions, and the benefit to young people would be enormous.”

Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students, said: “Today’s report demonstrates the potential benefits to the most disadvantaged students of applying after they have received their grades. This should be given serious consideration.”

A Universities UK spokesman said the organisation is nearing the conclusion of its review into university admissions.

He said: “The review group, which has school, college, student, university, and Ucas representatives, is analysing the evidence and views of applicants towards predicted grades, unconditional offers and post-qualification offer-making, and exploring ways in which those from disadvantaged backgrounds can be better supported throughout the process.

“The group will report later this year.”

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “University admissions should be fair and transparent and work in the best interests of all students with the potential.

“The Government is committed to delivering on our manifesto pledge to improve the admissions system and we are exploring options that will ensure it is as fair as possible.”