School-leavers’ anxious wait for university places in England could be ended under proposals by Labour that would delay the admissions process until after exam results are published, ending controversial practices that penalise disadvantaged students.
Angela Rayner, Labour’s education secretary, said the next Labour government would undertake an overhaul of the structure and timing of the higher education admissions system in England, to avoid relying on inaccurate A-level grade forecasts and to halt the controversial use of unconditional offers for school-leavers.
The announcement comes as more than 300,000 school-leavers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland await the results of their A-levels and other qualifications later this week, with the majority holding offers of undergraduate places dependent on achieving specific grades.
In most cases the offers are the result of applications made in January or earlier, but under Rayner’s plan the decision-making process at English institutions would be delayed until after 18 and 19-year-olds have had their exams marked and received their grades.
“The higher education admissions system isn’t working for students and radical action is needed to change that. Predicted grades are wrong in the vast majority of cases and disadvantaged students in particular are losing out on opportunities on the basis of those inaccurate predictions,” Rayner said.
Labour said a new admissions system would require consultation with schools and universities but would end England’s unusual status in requiring students to apply without knowing if they have achieved the right grades, leading to more than one in five students not receiving their first choice of course.
Research has found that around 1,000 high-achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds have their grades under-predicted each year, which can force them to wait a year to reapply to highly selective institutions such as Cambridge or Imperial College London.
Rayner pledged that a new streamlined admissions system would be introduced by the end of Labour’s first term in office.
“No one should be left out of our education system just because of their background, yet with grants scrapped and fees tripled, the system is now deeply unfair,” Rayner said.
“We will put students at the heart of the system, making it fairer, more accurate, and a genuine vehicle for social justice. We will work with schools, colleges and universities to design and implement the new system, to make higher education genuinely accessible to all.”
Sir Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust, backed the overhaul proposed by Labour. “The current system is based on students’ predicted grades which are wrong most of the time,” he said. “Our research has found that high-attaining, disadvantaged students are more likely to have their grades under-predicted than their better-off peers.
“Moving to a system of post-qualification applications would empower the student to make the best university choice for them.”
The change could require substantial changes to the timing of A-levels or the start of the university year for new undergraduates, although Rayner points out that, in other developed countries, applicants do not decide on offers before they receive exam grades.
In Finland, for example, final exams are taken in March before applications open, and offers made in July.
Rayner told BBC’s Radio 4 programme that Labour are willing to change the academic calendar to fit with their proposal. She said: “I want students to be able to make choices based upon their actual grades and be supported through that process. If that means we have to adjust the academic year slightly to make that happen, I think its important we do that because our system has to be fair.”
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders that represents many secondary school heads in England, warned that Labour’s proposals “represent a significant and complex change”.
“It would be extremely difficult to manage the entire applications process in the few weeks between A-level results in mid-August and the beginning of university terms in September or October, and it is likely that we would need to rethink the entire calendar,” Barton said.
School-leavers apply through the Ucas service, which also advertises courses available after exam results are published under a process known as clearing, a route that has become more popular in recent years as universities have aggressively expanded while the number of school-leavers in the population has been falling.
Clare Marchant, the chief executive of Ucas, said the application timeframe would need to change to give universities and students more time to make their decisions.
“Young people need their teachers’ support when making application choices, and this isn’t readily available to all at the scale required when schools and colleges are closed during August,” Marchant said.
“Universities and colleges need time for interviews, auditions, and considering contextual information about applicants, and time to put in place support services to help care leavers, first in family, and disabled students, transition into higher education.”
But the move was strongly supported by Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, which represents many university staff.
“The current system, based on inaccurately predicted results, is failing students. It is time we adopted the type of system used around the rest of the world where university offers are based on actual achievements instead of guesswork,” Grady said.
Rayner’s proposal would only apply to institutions in England, and potentially to applicants living in England, because education policy is devolved to national governments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, with Scotland already using post-qualification admissions (PQA) for its domestic applicants.
Labour’s pledge comes after the Office for Students – the higher education regulator in England – and Universities UK recently announced a review of university admissions in the wake of the sharp rise in the use by universities of unconditional offers. This year 38% of students received at least one unconditional offer unrelated to A-level grades.
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