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The review of university admissions

Published Wednesday, August 14, 2019

This House of Commons briefing paper discusses the university admissions system and the review of admissions practices which was announced by the Education Secretary on 5 April 2019. The paper focuses on the use of predicted grades for university admissions, the increase in unconditional offers by universities, contextual admissions and issues around a post qualification admissions system.

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In the UK prospective students apply for university places through the UCAS administrative system. Students applying through UCAS are required to submit various types of information including: predicted exam grades, a personal statement and academic references. Universities assess the information provided by candidates and offer students places based on a holistic assessment of all the data provided.

The university admissions system has been under scrutiny for decades and reviews have been conducted such as the Schwartz Review in 2004. Tweaks have been made to the system as a result of these reviews, but a number of criticisms remain. Current concerns are focused on the use of predicted grades and unconditional offers and in particular on their impact on disadvantaged students.

The minority of university offers are unconditional, but the share of all offers made that were recorded as unconditional has increased significantly, from 9.2 per cent in 2013, to 15.1 per cent in 2018. Most unconditional offers are made to older students, but the unconditional offer rate for 18 year olds has driven the overall increase in unconditional offers; up from less than 1% of offers to this age group in 2013, to 7.1% in 2018. 23% of 18 year olds received an unconditional offer in 2018, or 34% if all offers with any unconditional component are included. Unconditional offers are more common at universities with lower entry requirements. In 2013 just 16 universities had unconditional offer rates to 18 year olds of 1% or more. In 2018 this number had increased to 84.


This rise in uncondtional offers has been attributed to the increasingly competitive market in higher education and the raising of tuition fees in 2012. The rapid rise in the number of unconditional offers made is seen as concerning as unconditional offers may be de-motivating for students and lead to under achievement in exams.

Various reforms have been suggested to the admissions system such as moving to some type of post qualification application (PQA) scheme and the increased use of contextual admissions. On 14 August 2019 the Labour party announced its support for a PQA system.

On 5 April 2019 the Education Secretary, Damian Hinds announced that the Department for Education would conduct a review of university admissions practices with a focus on unconditional offers and widening participation. The Office for Students is expected to launch this review later in the year. On 22 July 2019 Universities UK launched its own separate review of admissions.





Commons Briefing papers CBP-8538

Authors: Susan Hubble; Paul Bolton

Topics: Higher education, Students

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