Opinion: The UK should move to full PQA. Now

A post-qualification applications system is the best way to ensure equity in admissions, says Sasha Roseneil, UCL’s Pro-Provost (Equity and Inclusion).

It is hardly surprising that the UK is a global outlier in expecting students to apply to university before knowing their exam results. If someone were inventing an admissions system from scratch, no one would do it this way - and it is heartening that the government has finally recognised that something needs to be done.

Requiring school-leavers to make life-defining decisions about which universities to apply to on the basis of predicted A-level and Scottish Higher results does a disservice to young people. In an increasingly competitive domestic and international higher education market, it ill-serves universities too, requiring them to make difficult decisions about who to admit on the basis of schoolteachers’ notoriously inaccurate hunches about what grades their students will ultimately achieve.

Research by academics from UCL’s Institute of Education, published last year, has found that that only 16 per cent of predicted grades are accurate, with 75 per cent of applicants having over-predicted grades. Moreover, high-attaining disadvantaged students are significantly more likely to receive pessimistic grade predictions - possibly because their performance is particularly hard to predict.

This means that selective universities such as UCL are missing out on these students, while the under-predicted candidates themselves are more likely to enrol in courses for which they are overqualified - making them more likely to drop out, get a lower-class degree and earn less in employment.

The problem was exacerbated last year, when the pandemic forced the cancellation of A levels, leaving universities reliant on teacher-predicted grades that were even more inflated than in "normal" times. This failure to make the most of the nation’s talent has profound implications not just for individuals and universities but also for the UK’s labour market and economy.

Parents and students themselves are supportive of reforming an admissions calendar and process that has not changed for the past 60 years. A study by the London School of Economics last autumn found that 49 per cent of UK parents and 60 per cent of sixth-formers agree or strongly agree that the UK should move to a post-qualification applications (PQA) process.

The Office for Students has recently been consulting about reform in England. At UCL, we have argued that moving to PQA would remove the inherent unfairness that exists in the current system. It would assist widening participation and contribute to social mobility.

We know that we are outliers in the sector in holding this view. The collective voice of British universities - in the form of Universities UK and the Russell Group - has recently made it clear that they are not keen on reform. They have rather reluctantly supported a less radical post-qualification offer (PQO) model, under which students would still apply on the basis of predicted grades but offers would be made after results are known. However, this would not address the fundamental problem. Disadvantaged students who turn out to be high achievers would still not apply to courses and universities that require higher entry grades.

We are, of course, fully aware of the challenges that would come with implementing a PQA system. It would require a slightly later first-year start date and changes to exam and marking timetables. It would require universities to invest in IT systems to support a more streamlined and faster approach to admissions. And, with a shorter application window, it would require schools, colleges and universities to ensure that high-quality information and guidance for applicants is available both during and in advance of the application window, to support wise choices.

But we believe that it is possible to make these changes. We also believe that if the government and sector are serious about improving admission rates for students from low-income and under-represented backgrounds, we need to make them.

We must grasp the nettle and set a date for the introduction of PQA. It is already long overdue.

This article originally appeared in Times Higher Education on 09 July 2021.

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