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Expected Changes to UK University Admissions Process

The UK’s Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, has recently announced plans to review the national university admissions system, moving away from using student’s UCAS predicted grades and towards a post-qualification admissions process. 

The idea of Post Qualification Admissions (PQA) and Post Qualification Offers (PQO) are policy ideas which have been long debated amongst those in the higher education sector. But with the recent announcement from the government, as well as the backing of bodies such as UCAS and Universities UK, it seems as though we are seeing for the first time the potential for actual implementation.

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What are the Expected Changes?

There could be big changes on the horizon for the UCAS admissions process in UK higher education institutions. These proposed amendments include 2 major potential shifts:

(1) University offers at UK institutions could be based on student’s actual grades rather than predicted grades.

(2) The start of the academic year could be changing from September to January. 

These changes could be implemented as early as next year, however will not affect 2021 university applications.

What are UCAS Predicted Grades?

According to the [official UCAS website, 

“A predicted grade is the grade of qualification an applicant’s school or college believes they’re likely to achieve in positive circumstances.

These predicted grades are then used by universities and colleges, as part of the admissions process, to help them understand an applicant’s potential.”


What Would the Changes Mean?

These changes could have ramifications for domestic and international students wanting to study in the UK, as offers would be made on actual grades rather than relying on predicted grades from teachers. Students could receive their university offers only once they have earned their final grades. 

This would mirror the Australian academic calendar and could even better support students from disadvantaged backgrounds, as high achievers from such a background have been found to be more likely to have their grades under-predicted. In fact, research conducted by UCL’s Institute of Education showed almost a quarter of high ability applicants from low-income households had their results under-predicted between 2013 – 2015.

Moving to a system where offers are made after students have achieved their results would also put an end to the soaring use of unconditional offers, where students are encouraged to accept an offer to a university or course which may not be their first choice, and adds to the current 6.3% dropout rate of undergraduate students

Education Secretary for the UK government, Gavin Williamson recently said:

“We should celebrate the fact that we are seeing record numbers of disadvantaged students going to university, but the current admissions system is letting down the brightest pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. By using predicted grades it is limiting the aspirations of students before they know what they can achieve.

We need to radically change a system which breeds low aspiration and unfairness. That is why we are exploring how best to transform the admission process to one which can propel young people into the most promising opportunities for them within higher education.”

What Impact Could the Changes Have for International Students?

Currently, the UK is the 2nd most popular destination to study worldwide, with international students making up around 20% of the total studying population. This review to innovate the UCAS system has put a strong emphasis on wanting to make the process work with international students and not deter them from applying.

The proposal to rely on actual grades rather than predicted grades has the power to affect current partnerships with international institutions.

Currently, students benefit from the security of conditional offers early in the cycle. If the changes mean that offers are made once final grades have been achieved, international students will lose the appeal of that initial certainty. Therefore, a more tailored system is required for overseas students, as UCAS is aware they run the risk of losing such students to institutions in the US, Canada or Australia. 


What Do Other Education Groups Think About the Changes?

Many education sector groups have spoken about the plan to review the current UCAS predicted grades system, highlighting the benefits of moving to a post-qualification admissions process.

Chief Executive of UCAS, Clare Marchant has spoken in support of Gavin Williamson’s decision, recently saying:

“We support the government taking a serious look at reforming the admissions timetable, which we have been doing over the last few months with universities, colleges, students, and schools.

There are different approaches to reform, so it’s right for any consultation to be open minded and have the aim of levelling up fairness for students. Importantly, the consultation will provide an opportunity to address any unintended consequences of such major change, as well as practicalities for higher education providers.”

Similarly, Professor Graham Virgo, Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge has said:

“The University of Cambridge welcomes the government’s decision to consult on reforming the way students apply to university, particularly through the adoption of a post-qualification admissions system. 

The University will work with the government towards the shared goal of establishing a system that will better enable our brightest young people, regardless of their background, to access university places that match their ability.”

As the announcement is so new, it’s hard to be certain on what to expect from the UCAS application predicted grades changes. However, initial polls conducted by the social mobility charity, Sutton Trust, have found that two-thirds of young people think this would be fairer than the current UCAS admissions system.

These proposed improvements are an exciting step in innovating the UK university admissions process and extensive talks with key stakeholder groups will be had over the coming months to ensure any such proposed development will be streamlined and efficient for both domestic and international students.

Thinking of studying in the UK?

As we’ve covered in this article, the UK is a popular destination for international students to study, being a central hub in research, innovation and home to an exceptional quality of education which is recognised worldwide. 

Understandably, many students want to experience the renowned British education system for themselves before applying for university, so they can narrow down their subject choices and know exactly what to expect when they arrive.

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UK Education Secretary plans to review university admissions, moving towards post-qualification offers based on actual grades. This aims to increase fairness and support disadvantaged students. It may impact international students but has support from education groups.

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