School leavers should apply to universities only after seeing their A-level results, a move that would end the controversial use of unconditional offers, in a major reform of the current system, according to a report backed by university staff.
Changes to the timing of the academic year and greater support for school-leavers could also form part part of the reforms, according to the report.
The move would end the uncertainties and perverse outcomes that bedevil the current system, including bias in favour of independent school applicants, according to the report’s backers.
The reforms, backed by the Universities and College Union, would see school-leavers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland apply for courses after seeing the results of their A-level and BTec exams or other qualifications, rather than applying months beforehand, as is currently the case.
Angela Nartey, a UCU policy officer and co-author of the report, said: “The current system simply isn’t fit for purpose. It was designed in the 1960s, when only about 5% of school-leavers went on to study at university, and there’s an urgent need for reform and greater transparency.”
But the authors face an uphill struggle winning over educationalists wedded to the current system because of what one vice-chancellor described as “institutional conservatism” among both school and university leaders.
Previous pushes for reform, most recently in 2012, have been derailed by opposition from university leaders and the Ucas admissions service. But changes to funding and the removal of institutional limits on undergraduate recruitment have shifted admissions towards the interest of applicants.
UCU’s efforts to reopen the discussion were backed by Gordon Marsden, Labour’s shadow higher education minister.
“An urgent debate needs to be had on post-qualification admissions. This government has failed to take meaningful action to improve access, and the current university admissions system too often makes it impossible for disadvantaged pupils to reach their full potential,” Marsden said.
“From unreliable predicted grades that can underestimate the ability of disadvantaged students, to the skyrocketing number of unconditional offers, the current system is in need of a serious rethink if it is to give every student the chance to succeed.”
Currently, sixth-formers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland apply for places on courses by January, months before sitting their exams in early summer. The timing forces applicants and universities to base their decisions on teachers’ predictions of likely grades – despite evidence showing those predictions to be largely inaccurate.
By bringing forward the sitting of A-levels and similar qualifications to after Easter, and pushing back the start of term for first-year undergraduates, the authors are confident that the bulk of applications and acceptances could take place in August.
The report says that the time between the end of exams and results being published at the start of August should be used to provide high-quality advice to school-leavers on their career options and potential courses.
“A higher-education system should be more than a cycle. It should be a set of support structures that enables students to make decisions about their higher-education courses and institutions,” the report, by Nartey and Graeme Atherton of the National Education Opportunities Network, states.
Bill Rammell, the vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and a former higher education minister under Labour, said he strongly supported post-qualification admissions, but thought the report’s proposed term-date changes – with first-year students starting their courses a few weeks after other students – would be unpopular.
“We are slowly moving towards post-qualification admissions in any case, because students are now in the driving seats,” said Rammell.
Nartey said students would be empowered by knowing their results at the point they applied, and that universities would be able to more easily and quickly select their future undergraduates.
A shift to post-qualification applications would also end the process known as clearing, a hurried scramble for remaining places among students who failed to achieve the grades predicted by their teachers, which takes places immediately after exam results are published in mid-August.
The change would also kill off the increasing use of unconditional offers by some institutions, which award places to students regardless of their eventual grades. Unconditional offers have been strongly criticised by head teachers as causing disruption in schools and removing incentives for pupils to perform to their best ability.
Nartey also said that previous research published by UCU had found that some under-represented groups, including ethnic minorities, were disadvantaged by the existing system, because their predicted A-levels may not have matched their true abilities.
“Students aren’t able to be broad or bold in their applications, because they didn’t know what they may have achieved,” Nartey said.
A spokesperson for Universities UK – which represents the bulk of British universities – said in response to the report: “One reason universities decided not adopt a new model was because disadvantaged students would not have access to one of their best sources of information for advice on university applications, their school or college, in the time they need to make a decision.
“We recognise that there are still challenges to address, including improving information for students and accuracy of predicted grades, and we will be reviewing new information on this topic from Ucas with interest when it is published.”
A 2011 study by Ucas found that students from disadvantaged backgrounds were likely to lose out under the current system, because they had less advice and support.
Earlier research by UCU showed that the existing application system in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is a global outlier compared to other high-performing countries, and the only one to use predicted grades as the basis for admissions.