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Recommendations to make university admissions fairer and more transparent

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A major review of admissions practices in the UK’s higher education sector has resulted in recommendations, published today, aimed at building greater levels of transparency, trust and public understanding.

Sector body Universities UK, whose President is Brunel University London’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Julia Buckingham CBE, spent 18 months undertaking an independent and comprehensive analysis of the evidence, involving extensive polling and consultation with students, schools, colleges, recent graduates, employers and education sector groups.

The Fair Admissions Review is recommending that the 2004 Schwartz principles on fair university admissions should be updated to make it clear that the best interests of students must always be paramount.

The review recommends that ‘conditional unconditional offers’ – which assure an applicant of a university place irrespective of their final grades, as long as the university is their firm choice – are not always in the best interests of students, and so do not meet the revised principles.

However, wider unconditional offers are appropriate under certain circumstances, including where applicants already have the required grades, have interviewed or auditioned, or have special consideration due to illness or disability.

The new code of practice would make clear that the use of any incentives in offer-making should not place any unnecessary pressure on applicants, and must be published clearly, consistently and communicated to applicants in good time. The review recommends that failure to adhere to the proposed code of practice would result in sanctions for higher education providers.

In the longer term, the Fair Admissions Review recommends that universities should only offer places to students after exam results are known: post-qualifications admissions, or PQA. This will result in greater transparency and confidence in the admissions system, giving students more choice for longer and will be less distracting for them in the lead up to exams. It would also reduce reliance on predicted grades and be fairer for students.

The review has identified, however, that this change would have implications for school and university timetabling, and could pose challenges for highly selective courses and when arranging interviews. It may also mean there are fewer teachers available over the summer to help students make decisions, and less time for applicants to respond to offers. UUK is committed to working with the relevant bodies to ensure any unintended consequences are resolved.

It is expected to take at least three years to implement any possible move to PQA. UUK will fully consult and work with universities, schools, UK government and relevant organisations throughout this period to develop and further test the workability of the new approach.

The review is also recommending that better, and more consistent, information is made publicly available by providers on their use of contextual admissions to further boost social mobility and level up opportunity. Previous polling by UUK showed that those who receive contextual offers – offers made with additional consideration towards personal circumstances – are more likely to say that navigating and understanding offer-making is a challenge when applying.

While qualifications and grades are important, applications must be considered alongside other information which helps to identify potential and to widen access to university, while always upholding standards. The review recommends greater focus is given to those on free school meals, facing deprivation, or who are care-experienced.

For further information, read Universities UK’s Fair Admissions Review.

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