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PQA: Just what does it mean?

  • 14 August 2019
  • By Nick Hillman

The annual conversation about whether or not people should be offered places in higher education only after receiving their exam results, known as PQA, is well underway.

But many important points tend to be overlooked in this regular conversation.

  • The differences between Post-Qualification Applications (when you apply for a place after receiving your results) and Post-Qualification Admissions (where the places are handed out after the results but in which you might have applied, as now, before you know how you have done). The oddity of our system is not so much that people apply before receiving their results; the oddity is that huge weight is put on predicted grades, which are notoriously unreliable. Either version of PQA could tackle this, but they are different from one another and it is not always clear which one PQA advocates want.
  • It is already possible to apply after receiving your grades. Moreover, UCAS have just made this easier for those who wish to withdraw from an existing offer and re-apply when they have their results in their hands.
  • The debate has been going on much longer than many people realise. If history comes into it, then the starting point tends to be the Schwartz report of 2004. But as that report makes clear, the forerunner of Universities UK,  the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP), supported the idea back in the 1990s.
  • Systems that focus on qualifications already secured can make exam results even more important. This is because there can be less time to undertake rounded application processes that put weight on many different factors, such as applicants’ backgrounds.

Changing the system has secured interest at the highest levels of politics. In 2011, for example, the Coalition’s higher education white paper, Students at the Heart of the System, said: ‘An area we want to examine further is whether a system of Post-Qualification Application (PQA) would promote fairer access.’ But, in 2012, after a major UCAS review, they said: ‘we will not be commissioning further work on the feasibility and benefits of a PQA model.’

In the last few hours, the Official Opposition has come out in favour, using the same language as the Coalition did back in 2011: ‘we will put students at the heart of the system’.

Whenever policymakers consider PQA, the discussion often neglects another important fact: the autonomy of higher education institutions on whom they admit, which has been protected in primary legislation under red and blue Governments.

The Higher Education and Research Act (2017), for example, says: ‘“the institutional autonomy of English higher education providers” means … the freedom of English higher education providers … to determine the criteria for the admission of students and apply those criteria in particular cases’.

Angela Rayner, the Shadow Secretary of State for Education, has promised: ‘We will work with schools, colleges, and universities to design and implement the new [PQA] system, and continue to develop our plans to make higher education genuinely accessible to all.’

This is carefully worded, but what happens if schools, colleges and universities are less keen on the model than policymakers propose? Would it be forced through anyway? Would it need legislative change? And what would it mean for university autonomy?


  1. Les Ebdon says:

    It is difficult to argue that a post qualification decision to admit is both more logical and more equitable. The difficulty is in the practicalities of PQA which in the past has given those who benefit the most from the present unfair system the opportunity to block any changes. What is needed is a clear determination to achieve PQA and linking the achievement of this by autonomous universities to Government funding.

  2. Colin McCaig says:

    It seems to me that tge PQA debate will focus on which of two immovable things has to move: the school year or the HE year. I note the UCU has a plan that would allow for slightly earlier exams and a slightly later start to the academic year (November). January is a possibility too – but why not have a system where applicants are offered a place to start the following year? A chance for young people to take a year off the educational treadmill, earn some money, do something useful for their family or community. Ok there would have to be a one-off compensatory payment to institutions but if a thing is worth doing its worth doing properly.

  3. Andrew Fisher says:

    Nick, you say that ‘huge weight is put on predicted grades’, but I am not sure this is really true. The UCAS end-of-cycle reports consistently show that 18-year old UK applicants get offers on all (or almost all) of their applications which doesn’t suggest that HEIs put much weight on the predicted grades at all. There are obviously exceptions for a few very high prestige courses and in subjects like nursing. If predicted grades mostly affect applicant behaviour, PQA won’t change that.

  4. Colin McCaig says:

    Good point Andrew. In fact predicted grades are all about the ‘sticker-price’ or ‘quality-mark’ that institutions love to put on their courses and institutions. In reality any institution will accept the highest number of best qualified applicants that they can. So long as they can say they demand (e.g.) AAB as an entry requirement it sends out the desired message- and part of that message is ‘if you don’t expect to attain AAB in these prescribed A levels, don’t bother to apply here’.

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