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Should unconditional university offers be scrapped?

Students should apply to university only after receiving their exam results, the report says. Source: Facebook/@TutorYouMilan

The UK’s lecturer union is calling for unconditional offers and Clearing to be abolished as part of proposed reforms to how students apply to British universities.

With the number and diversity of student applications rising in recent decades, the admissions system should be updated to help them make better decisions about their higher education destinations, according to the report by the University and College Union.

“A higher education admissions system is more than a cycle and a process of application into higher education,” said the report titled, Post-qualification application: a student-centred model for higher education admissions in England, Northern Ireland and Wales.

“It is a set of support structures that enable students to make decisions about their higher education course and institution which begins well before any application is made and includes preparation for and induction to higher education study.”

Report co-author Angela Nartey said, as reported by The Guardian: “The current system simply isn’t fit for purpose. It was designed in the 1960s, when only about five percent of school-leavers went on to study at university, and there’s an urgent need for reform and greater transparency.”

More than half a million school-leavers have to submit their application for the majority of courses through UCAS, the body that operates the application process for British universities, on January 15 2019. As exams take place in early summer, these applications are based on their teachers’ predictions of likely grades.

Predicted grades represent only one flaw of the current admissions systems. Use of these intangible achievements forms an unfit basis for young people to make key decisions about their academic future. The report highlights research which found that three-quarter (75 percent) of applicant grades are over-predicted and only around 16 percent are predicted correctly. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are also discouraged from applying to institutions for which they may have the relevant grades to enter.

Unconditional offers, where students are offered a spot at an institution regardless of their exam results, have risen “meteorically” in recent years – nearly one in four 18-year-olds applying from England, Wales and Northern Ireland have received an unconditional offer – according to UCAS figures.

Though some universities defend it as a means to engage with potential students early on, its use has been controversial, causing students to underperform against their expected entry grades while standing as a means for letting universities fill up as many spots as possible.

UCU’s report describes this as a system that “lacks rigours”, causing negative graduate outcomes while it “undermines the professionalism” of the admissions system.

Clearing, a feature of the current admissions system that matches applicants to university places that are yet to be filled, is described as a “sub-optimal admissions process that puts both applicants and HEIs (higher education institutions) under severe pressure”.

All of the above would be defunct in UCU’s proposed PQA system, which would see a reshuffling of the exams and application timetable. A-levels and similar qualifications would be brought forward to take place after Easter and seven weeks after their last exams, students will receive their results and start their applications. For the period between exams and results, the authors propose for high-quality advice to be given to school-leavers regarding potential courses and careers.

Students would then receive their decisions on the third week of September, ready to begin their undergraduate term on the first week of November. This would require first-year students to start term later than other students, a move that could be unpopular according to Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, Bill Rammell.

Speaking to The Guardian, the former Higher Education Minister under Labour said he supports the PQA, which the UK is slowly moving towards adopting anyway, “because students are now in the driving seats.”

Dr Graeme Atherton, report co-author and Director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON), wrote in Wonkhe that a later start to the academic year could become “a real strength” as first-year students can focus more on transitioning, preparing and entering university. Any disruption to learning can be avoided by universities treating this induction phase as a “pre-reading period” for all students.

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