Education is a great leveller, a route for people from disadvantaged backgrounds to improve their lives. We know graduates tend do better and earn more in full-time employment.
More 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds are going to university than ever before, but they remain three times less likely than those from wealthier backgrounds to do so. To narrow that gap, universities must do more to help them.
It is essential that the university admissions system is easy for students to understand . That’s why, at Universities UK, we’ve launched a fair admissions review group, which will analyse whether offer-making from UK universities is fit for purpose.
To inform the group’s work, Savanta ComRes polled students and recent graduates asking, among other things, whether they felt the system is fair and their views on whether it would be better to apply to university after receiving exam grades.
The results have been enlightening. The majority (70%) of the 1,499 people polled believe the system is fair, but more than a quarter say it isn’t working well.
While most applicants have faith in university admissions, it is clear more needs to be done to support and win the confidence of those in underrepresented groups such as Black, Asian, and minority ethnic applicants who are less likely than white applicants to describe the system as fair (62% compared to 73% respectively).
The main complaint is that unhelpful careers advice is undermining the current process. It is therefore the job of universities, colleges, schools, employers and the government to work together to provide better support for all applicants. Failing to do so means we risk talent slipping through the cracks.
Universities have a responsibility to explain and to justify why and how places are awarded. In particular, the use of unconditional offers – an offer that is made without requiring a specific entry grade – is being carefully considered in this review. The new universities minister, Michelle Donelan, is among those politicians to question their use in the past.
The group will also scrutinise the impact of these offers on exam performance, how students decide which university to attend, and on their future career prospects. Offers must be made in the best interests of students, without limiting ambition or adversely influencing course choices.
Universities are trying hard to reach applicants in disadvantaged communities by awarding them “contextual” offers, which reflect individual circumstances and potential. The polling shows, though, that greater transparency and better communication is needed.
Too often these offers remain shrouded in secrecy, meaning the very people who could benefit from them may be unaware of their existence. When asked to pinpoint challenges in the application process, 27% of those who received contextual offers found it challenging to understand the different types of offers. This must change.
The polling also shows that almost one in three applicants feel that not having their exam results before applying to university is a challenge and, significantly, more than half of recent applicants believe universities and colleges should only make offers after grades have been received.
The benefits and disadvantages to students of switching to a post-qualification system will be explored in the review. It’s a complicated question: moving the admissions process to after students have received their results could substantially change school, college and university timetabling.
It is a frequently repeated myth that such a system is the norm across the world. But in most countries, including Australia, France, Germany and Canada, students apply to university several months before they take their final exams and don’t get their offers until after their exam results are known – similar to in the UK. Again, educators in these countries stress the importance of good quality careers advice.
Universities are working with students, schools, colleges, Ucas and the government to ensure the system in the UK is the best it can be. The students and graduates have spoken. We must make sure we listen and take actions.