Ministers may move university applications to after A-level results

The education secretary is planning a radical overhaul of England’s university admissions system, with students applying after A-level results and the start of the academic year possibly being moved to January, the Guardian has learned.

Civil servants at the Department for Education (DfE), under Gavin Williamson, have modelled a shift to post-qualification admissions to improve social mobility and help disadvantaged school-leavers.

Under the current system, sixth formers in England apply to university in January using grades predicted by their teachers, before sitting A-levels in late spring and accepting university offers in June. 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.

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.

Ministers including Williamson are understood to believe that post-results applications would benefit disadvantaged young people, including students from black and minority ethnic (BAME) groups.

Predicted grades are often unreliable. Research from the Sutton Trust has shown that disadvantaged students tend to receive lower predicted A-level grades.

Ministers also want to give the government more direct oversight of the entry path to higher education, doing away with what they consider to be a bureaucratic tangle of predicted grades and conditional and unconditional offers that has grown up around the current system.

It comes as the business secretary, Alok Sharma, is to announce extra financial support for universities, including £200m to fund research posts likely to suffer from cuts stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, and loans to cover losses from falling international student fees. Further support, bringing forward additional research and development funding that was budgeted for next year, is expected to be announced soon.

Plan to cap numbers at UK universities to go ahead

Williamson and the DfE are preparing to publish new proposals for skills, further education and apprenticeships in the next few weeks, culminating in a white paper intended to rebalance post-18 education away from universities and higher education and towards further education, which is being given a higher priority by both the department and Downing Street.

For the higher education sector, a strategy paper is being drawn up to include the push towards post-qualification admissions and other proposals aimed at improving the prospects of disadvantaged applicants.

A number of vice-chancellors also fear that the government wants to clamp down on student numbers taking humanities courses, especially those with a track record of low graduate earnings.

A document discussed within the DfE this month, seen by the Guardian, outlines a number of models for ministers and policymakers. All the options assume post-qualification admissions as a starting point, suggesting that Williamson and others are determined to make the change that the sector has resisted for many years.

The models include:

  • Exams results published in August as is currently the case, but with university and college terms starting in January, allowing five months for processing applications.

  • Moving exam results forward into July and the start of the university term back into mid-October, allowing a 12-week window for students to apply.

  • An unchanged timetable, with only a five-week window for the application process to run between exam results in August and the start of the university term in September, as now.

  • University applications made before A-level results are received, but offers of places to students not released until after results are published, with no change to current timings.

The model of pre-qualification applications and post-results offers is also closest to that likely to be proposed by the Universities UK group, which is also holding its own consultation. A DfE spokesperson said: “We do not comment on leaks and will not be drawn on speculation.”

Those analysing the plans suggested that moving the start of university terms to January would promote fairness and transparency as well as a “strong social mobility narrative”. The long gap following the end of exams would allow universities to run courses to prepare students for higher education, as well as opportunities for applicants to attend open days and consider their options.

Supporters of the move to a January start said it would have less “negative impact” on the mental health of students, although would also leave many at a loose end in summer and autumn, “particularly for those disadvantaged students who are likely to need to take paid work in this time”.

A January term start would also have an impact on applications by international students and shrink the long summer holiday for students and staff. “[Higher education] providers unlikely to voluntarily agree to this because of the loss of income and disruption to the academic year,” one briefing document noted, although it suggested that the process would be easier for both the Ucas admissions and Student Loans Company administrators.

Of the other options, the proposal for a 12-week application window between July and October would pile pressure on schools, exam boards and Ofqual, with less time to teach A-level and other qualifications and less time to mark exams, “and we do not know at this stage whether this would be feasible,” the analysis noted.

Education secretary backs review of university admissions

The DfE push for post-qualification admissions is the latest in a long line of attempts going back to 2006. On each occasion, the status quo has remained intact after opposition from universities and school leaders. Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, is said to have opposed the proposals during his time as an adviser to Michael Gove at the DfE.

Williamson’s efforts to press ahead with the reforms come amid government frustration with the Office for Students (OfS), the higher education regulator for England. In February the OfS launched its own consultation on the admissions process but that has since been paused because of the coronavirus outbreak, with no deadline set, leaving ministers with little to work on.

This year, students have a better chance of getting into a top university | Koen Lamberts

Earlier this week Sir Michael Barber, executive chair of the OfS, announced his retirement when his term expires next year. Barber was keen to be reappointed for another four-year term but stepped down after the DfE’s unhappiness with the OfS’s performance became apparent.

The new post-18 education policy proposals came as Williamson wants to move beyond the coronavirus pandemic aftermath, with measures to improve the status and attractiveness of further education, which it regards as a more cost-effective means of meeting the UK labour market’s skills shortage.

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