Clare Marchant argues that there are a million reasons to reform the admissions process
The creation of a shared admissions service in the 1960s was born out of the need to promote transparency, efficiency and fairness for the growing number of people wishing to benefit from higher education following the post-war baby boom.
In 1965, there were more than 80,000 applicants; 60 years later, we predict that there will be one million.
Throughout this period, change has been part of Ucas’s DNA. With just days to go before the Department for Education’s consultation on admissions reform closes on 13 May, we welcome—and support—the latest reignition of the admissions reform debate.
Despite the pandemic, demand for higher education continues to grow: the 2020 cycle saw a record 18-year-old entry rate. The January application deadline for 2021 entry saw an 8 per cent increase in applications overall, meaning that even if we just maintained the placed applicant rate from 2020, we would still see an intake 45,000 larger this autumn.
This trend will continue. The growing 18-year-old population, continued demand from outside the UK and increasing participation by mature students mean that the number of students applying to higher education will continue to grow, with over a million applicants projected for 2025. This means that gaining a place at some universities and on some courses will be even more competitive—and without continued reform, we risk stalling or even reversing some progress made in widening access and participation.
The growing demand will change the nature of higher education admissions, and it remains our ambition to be fit for purpose not just today but also for the future.
Throughout our history, Ucas has continuously reformed the admissions service to deliver better outcomes for students. For three decades, we have provided information, advice and services to enable both young and mature students to progress to the next stage of their educational lives, be it on an undergraduate, postgraduate or apprenticeship pathway, and we’ve continually evolved the admissions service to enable us to keep student choice, inclusivity, transparency and support at its heart.
The Department for Education is consulting on two models of admissions reform in a bid to tackle some of the challenges with the system, such as the use of unconditional offers and predicted grades. And following two years of extensive engagement with admissions and recruitment professionals, schools, colleges and students across the country, Ucas is cautiously supporting a variation of one of them—a post-qualification offer-making model. But in our recently published report Reimagining UK Admissions, we warn that significant challenges would need to be overcome in order to implement it.
First, we have to marry any change with how international students apply to UK universities. With 150,000 students from outside the UK applying in 2020 alone, a system in which offers are made later in the cycle could pose real risks to the UK’s competitive position in the global student recruitment market.
We also need to consider the resource implications of the increased support and guidance that would be required by offer holders from teachers and careers advisers in schools and colleges, as well as university admissions and teaching staff over a longer period in the summer.
Finally, we must ensure that the benefits of a cross-UK model for university admissions are not lost, so working together with all four nations to bring about any change will be crucial.
It is imperative that the government takes all consultation responses into consideration and that any changes are fully resourced and given a workable timeframe to mitigate any consequences that may negatively impact on any part of the sector.
But Ucas supports reform regardless of whether the overall model of higher education admissions is changed. Over the years, Ucas has evolved the admissions service to better serve applicants and broaden participation, and we are committed to continuing this evolution. Our drive to enable a fairer, more inclusive, transparent and easy-to-navigate admissions service, which encompasses alternative routes on an equal footing, will remain at the forefront of our vision and core purpose.
In recent years, Ucas has transformed how students explore their options through the introduction of Clearing Plus and the Ucas Hub. These form part of an overall programme of student-centric reform, with the aim of promoting flexibility, choice and more informed decision-making.
The challenges associated with the introduction of a post-qualification offer model are significant and should not be underestimated. Should these prove insurmountable, change will still be required. We are confident that, in collaboration with the sector, we could overcome the challenges identified within the system and allow students to make choices later in the cycle, when they are more informed.
Scope to build
Throughout 2020 and 2021, Ucas has made structural changes to the admissions cycle, giving students more time to make their choices, and there is scope to build on this further. Equally, the range of pathways available to students, such as Adjustment and Extra, could be reviewed to ensure they continue to offer students flexibility and choice. Finally, predicted grades could be supplemented with data-driven support, such as historical assessment of accuracy or projected outcomes based on previous achievement.
In the event that a post-qualification offer model proves unachievable, we’d want to immediately ramp up engagement with the sector about further reforms as early as 2021.
We expect to live with the impact and aftereffects of Covid-19 for several years, and the lessons from how students have accessed information and advice, and their demand for greater transparency, must be acted on.
For Ucas, this is about continuous transformation and reform, meeting the challenges of the future head-on. This is the only way to be fit for our future applicants.
Clare Marchant is chief executive of Ucas.