England’s university admissions: Will students be applying to uni only after A level results?

study abroad in the UK
Changes to England's university admissions will see students applying for places after receiving their A-level results. Source: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP

International students who plan to study in the UK should take note that England’s university admissions system might see an overhaul that would affect when they enrol at university. 

The proposed change by UK Education Secretary Gavin Williamson would scrap the use of predicted A level grades and move the start of the academic year in English universities to January, reported The Guardian.

Civil servants at the Department for Education (DfE) are planning to shift university admissions using published A level results to help disadvantaged students. 

Currently, predicted grades are a key part of the application process for students in England who use them to apply to university before sitting for their A levels.  

“Exam results are published in August, meaning those who missed out on their required grades face a frantic scramble to join clearing and find another course. Teacher grade predictions are notoriously inaccurate, adding to confusion for students and admissions staff,” said the report.

Predicted A level grades in university admissions have poor reliability

Critics have long argued that applying to university with actual A level results would be fairer for everyone, including disadvantaged students.

Office for Students chairman Sir Michael Barber was previously quoted by the BBC that there was “widespread recognition” that parts of the admissions system were “not working”.

The higher education watchdog said that in 75% of cases, pupils did not make the grades predicted by schools while education ministers have warned to reduce “unconditional offers” made to a student by a university.

Unconditional offers mean students have gotten a place at a university they’ve applied to,  barring a few other administrative or financial arrangements.

The report added that personal statements can be skewed towards those who get the most help from parents or teachers, while Barber said the admissions process “may be especially unfair on students from disadvantaged backgrounds”.

UK think-tank HEPI has also previously argued against using predicted and estimated grades as central in decisions for universities.

On the impact of COVID-19, Ben Mason – the founder and CEO of globalbridge, an EdTech platform – wrote on HEPI that, “There is clearly an opportunity here for universities to view supporting evidence around applicants when traditional methods are no longer available — and to prove predicted grades do not have to be the only measure of a young person’s capabilities.”

Changes to come?

The Guardian said under the proposed change, school leavers and other applicants would only proceed with final university applications after their exam results, meaning they would have a clear understanding of the courses for which they qualify.

Indubitably, applying to university with student’s A-level results would entail changing the current academic timetable from the traditional September start to a later term, which would affect a cohort of incoming international students. 

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