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Five steps UCAS is taking to reform the undergraduate admissions process

  • 12 January 2023
  • By Kim Eccleston

This blog has been kindly written for HEPI by Kim Eccleston, Head of Strategy and Reform – Strategy, Policy and Public Affairs, at UCAS. HEPI’s recent paper on reforming UCAS personal statements is here.

At UCAS, we are continually working to improve the admissions service to serve applicants better and broaden participation for all students, whether pursuing a traditional undergraduate degree or an apprenticeship. As an independent charity, fair admissions, transparency and putting applicants’ best interests at the heart of the system are absolutely central to our role. Over the past three years, we have been working to develop and deliver new improvements to provide a more flexible system for all when exploring and connecting to choices.

Why are we introducing these changes?

We first published areas for improvement in our Reimagining UK Admissions report, released in April 2021. The report was informed by the voices of 13,000 students and outlined a student-centred programme of reform. 

Building on those findings, we have continued our engagement with the sector on reforming and improving admissions, recognising that while the Department for Education opted not to progress with post-qualification admissions at that time, the consultation revealed appetite across all four parts of the UK for alternative approaches to innovation. We have **TODAY** published a new report, Future of Undergraduate Admissionswhich outlines five key areas of immediate focus.

What are we doing?

Each year, UCAS supports over 1.5 million students to explore opportunities and over 700,000 students from 200 countries and territories around the world to apply to higher education in the UK. This means that, as the central admissions service, we have fantastic insight into students’ behaviour and how they navigate their options. Through these upcoming reforms, we aim to introduce greater personalisation for students making post-secondary choices, give more structure to free text sections of the UCAS application (specifically, the academic reference and personal statement), enhance visibility of the range of grade profiles and deliver new initiatives to support further widening access and participation. 

Of these, the key area I want to highlight is personal statements. We know this aspect of the UCAS application attracts a lot of attention (including in a recent HEPI Debate Paper), and we have been carrying out widespread engagement to determine its value and whether it can be enhanced by changes. In the past year, we have consulted widely with 1,200 domestic and international students, over 170 teachers and advisers and over 100 universities and colleges as well as engaging with governments, regulators and the charity sector across the UK. 

Students tell us time and time again that they want the space to advocate for themselves, in their own words, to demonstrate achievements beyond their grades. Our survey of 2022 cycle applicants found most students are in favour of personal statements – 89% of respondents said they felt that the purpose of the personal statement is extremely clear or clear, while 72% felt positive about it. Similarly, teachers and advisers told us they value the role that the process of writing a personal statement plays in helping their students affirm their choices for themselves. However, 83% of students surveyed reported that the process of writing a personal statement is stressful, with 79% agreeing that the statement is difficult to complete without support.

Based on this feedback, we will be reframing the current format into a series of questions. Our engagement to date has identified six key areas:

  1. motivation for the course;
  2. preparedness for the course;
  3. preparation through other experiences;
  4. extenuating circumstances;
  5. preparedness for study; and
  6. preferred learning style.

We believe this will create a more supportive framework which in turn will help guide students through their responses by removing the guesswork, as well as capturing the information universities and colleges have told us they really need to know from applicants when it comes to offer-making. 

What happens next?

It should go without saying that reform is an evolving process, and we will keep engaging with the sector to help us shape the delivery of these reforms. We particularly welcome feedback on our approach to personal statements, as we continue to test and validate our proposed questions which we plan to introduce in 2024 for 2025 entry, and to ensure the new approach makes it easier for students to write their application and offers clarity to teachers, advisers, universities and colleges alike. 

Reform and constant improvement are in UCAS’s DNA and through collaboration, we can work together to ensure students feel fully informed and supported through each step of their admissions journey.

Read UCAS’ Future of Undergraduate Admissions report here.

12 comments

  1. Nick Bryars says:

    Two aspects of these reforms concern me. Firstly, should we be concerned that applicants find writing a personal statement stressful? Surely, a potential undergraduate should be able to write a short piece of prose about themselves? Secondly, what is meant by their preferred “learning style”? “Learning styles” are an idea that was debunked years ago. I am dismayed that UCAS should consider this.

  2. Denis Blight says:

    I found this to be very interesting. I have long been an admirer of UCAS as a centralised admissions system for the UK.
    I see references to international students and wonder about what measure of integration there is twixt UCAS and the many private education agencies supporting British universities in their international recruitment efforts and to what extent UCAS has explored the scope for a more strategic partnership with the British Council, and might I suggest IDP Education Inc.

  3. rob says:

    Learning Styles?!?!

    What a shambles!

  4. Rob Cuthbert says:

    What about rather more radical changes that would make admissions fairer, quicker and better?
    https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2021/11/05/how-to-make-higher-education-admissions-fairer-quicker-and-better/
    As far as I know UCAS has refused to engage with these ideas, but has not said why. If someone from UCAS can explain why that 2021 proposal is unworkable then I will stop asking about it.

  5. Gavin Moodie says:

    I agree with Rob; the claims for learning styles have been thoroughly debunked:

    Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: a systematic and critical review. London, Learning and Skills Research Centre, Learning and Skills Development Agency.

    https://www.voced.edu.au/content/ngv%3A13692

  6. kate Aspin says:

    Learning styles …please these have been debunked as a total myth!

  7. Do you know, with pause for thought I think this actually might be a good think. It will stop AI assisted applications, and also give both the student a taste of direct lecturer engagement, as well as give the university network a taste of that individual student. Obviously there will have to be some learning done by UCAS on the individual learning styles, etc. But I don’t think you can debunk a whole field, with a single reference. As good as the internet is, it isn’t that good!

    Finally when I did my five year degree, certainly near the end, there was the greater use of presentations as a means of grading. Even as much as 50% for some modules. So in respect of this, I suppose it was inevitable this day would come. Thanks for your efforts

  8. Toby Simeons says:

    Learning styles are a myth. There’s no scientific literature or evidence to back it up.

    And obviously writing a personal statement can be stressful. But I have no doubt a video statement is going to provide much more stress than before. Some people are good orators on camera, others are not. No different to some being better writers than others. Except being able to write well is probably far more relevant to higher education. Oratory skills are learnt over time and with experience and give no advantage to students from low economic backgrounds.

  9. Mr John Robinson says:

    Okay, maybe you have a point about learning styles. But my point that oral presentations are being increasingly used to mark under-graduate work remains. This will actually be good preparation for this.

  10. Anne says:

    This is very disappointing.

    Instead of a blank page with little indication of background, characteristics etc. the videos will reveal the gender, race, bedroom, gender conformity, attractiveness etc of the candidate which will (consciously or unconsciously) bias the applications. Students who have more money will have better recordings and will still be tutored on what to say. It will also take up more time for already overworked admissions teams.

    Personal statements are supposed to be slightly stressful. They are a brilliant skill for the future though – being able to write a cover letter or personal report is invaluable.

  11. Darcy says:

    I fail to see how these reforms will make the process of applying less stressful – it’s an inherently stressful situation. I also think that addling a video statement is a terrible idea in a country with such big problems with racism and discrimination based on accents.

  12. Lubaina Khan says:

    Unsurprisingly prejudices in university enrollment habits remain as entrenched as ever amongst admissions administration depts.
    Still no standardised timelines and processes between universities for a particular subject course to provide more equal opportunities for growing applicants year on year. Still a totally arbitrary affair. Still exclusivism practiced by the top colleges.
    Still the automated copy paste responses to student applications. (Those that bother to reply)
    Still the racism, elitism, classism and discrimination on full mode.
    Nowadays Indianisation is the ethnic flavor of the month for obvious political agendas which pervade all national bodies. Which means decisions for and against are already pre formed. Convenient for sake of appearances only. Since its mainly about the aristocratic class, guarding their capital and excluding others even when they are academically exceptional ,despite being from disadvantaged backgrounds.

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