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How could admissions reform work in practice?

  • 8 April 2021
  • By Graeme Atherton

This week, we are running a selection of chapters from HEPI’s recent collection of essays Where next for university admissions?‘ edited and introduced by Rachel Hewitt, HEPI’s Director of Policy and Advocacy. Yesterday we shared the chapter by Dr John Cater, Vice-Chancellor at Edge Hill University ‘Post qualification admissions: Should we be careful what we wish for?‘.

This blog is the second in the series and is the chapter written by Dr Graeme Atherton, Director, National Education Opportunities Network (NEON).


Most people reading this chapter probably cannot remember the first time they thought about going onto higher education. It was always the case they would end up at university. The process of choosing which provider and which course begins early for many who go onto higher education.  But deciding higher education is not for me also starts far earlier than the point when UCAS forms are submitted. Thinking about when young people make choices about their future means any discussion about the higher education admissions system must examine then what we mean by this system, when it starts and what it is looking to achieve.

The trilogy of reports produced by the University and College Union (UCU) between 2018 and 2020, looking at how the higher education admissions system in England could be improved, began from these starting points. The first in 2018 compared the admissions system in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to that in 29 other countries. It showed, aside from Scotland, that the UK is a global outlier in having a system where offers of university places are made on predicted rather than actual results. It also highlighted, however, the big differences between countries in how students gain admission to higher education. In many countries universities set their own entrance examinations, and in others admission is decided mainly via national aptitude tests. These differences shape the extent to which direct comparison between admissions systems is possible. However, they also illustrate that alternative ways of organising the higher education admissions system exist. International comparisons did not necessarily highlight one system to emulate, but it did show that across different countries denying students the choice that only comes with knowing for certain their grades in what is an actual / de-facto university entrance examination (like A-Levels have become) would never be countenanced. At a level of principle, this is not how students are treated in the vast majority of countries in the world.

Looking at higher education admissions globally illustrated the potential, as argued in the second UCU report of the series, to ‘re-imagine’ the admissions system. This report outlines a model of an admissions system which aims more fully to encompass the journey to higher education. It argues that the admissions system should be divided into three phases. The first is a ‘supporting choice making’ phase from Year 10 up to and including final examinations prior to higher education application. It would include a minimum of 10 hours per year of higher education-related information advice and guidance over each of Years 10 to 13 and a ‘Student Futures Week’ at the end of Year 12, which would be a designated period in the school calendar for consideration of future education. Guaranteeing this level of support would create a clearer mutual understanding across universities, schools and colleges regarding what should be done to enable students to make optimum higher education choices. In the January of the year of application, applicants would be able to make ‘expressions of interest’ to up to 12 universities. An expression of interest window would provide, as in the present system, a mechanism to provide universities with information regarding course demand without pushing students into making earlier choices than they need to.

The second phase of a new system would be ‘application and decision making’ which would run from the first week of August to the end of September, with students applying for their institutions and courses in early August. The final phase is that of Entry into higher education. Applications made after results, in the context of A-Level examinations in May / June, implies a later start for the face-to-face element of teaching for first-year students. The report suggests the first week of November with a period of online preparation beforehand. The main questions raised regarding this model was how students would be supported at the time of application and the later start to the first year of higher education. The very purpose of this model is to recognise choice as a process and enable it accordingly. This does not mean that support at the time of application is not needed. But the present system, because of the uneven provision of information, advice and guidance (IAG) students receive through their secondary career, makes some level of support when results are provided in August more important than it should be. This alternative model aims to improve the provision of information and guidance. Starting later should not be seen as an inevitable negative side effect of a more student focused admission system. It may be beneficial in allowing students to prepare better for their first year and universities to focus specifically on first-year students when they enter.

The final UCU report of the trilogy looked at the views of leaders from schools, colleges and universities in admissions system reform. It found that, of the sample of 128 leaders, over 80 per cent favoured further exploration of a post qualification admissions system and the majority supported the key elements of the model described above. This includes the later start for first-year students which over 80 per cent of school leaders and 60 per cent of higher education leaders supported, 80 per cent of leaders from across the education sector supported a minimum of 10 hours information, advice and guidance per student between Years 10 to 13. Aside from the specific findings, the report illustrated clearly the need to engage school and college leaders in shaping the future of the system.

Looking at the higher education admissions system in depth, consulting schools and others at home and what happens across the world shows that while we do not have a higher education admissions system that is failing, we can have a system that does better. It was designed at a time when relatively small numbers of students made automatic choices between a limited number of options and students were seen and not heard. If we want to help students from all backgrounds make the best choices possible, then it needs to support students through the whole decision making and admissions process. This means starting earlier, finishing later and giving students the maximum support and time to make choices at the points in-between.


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