Jane Cahill
Jane Cahill
Head of English at Central Foundation Girls’ School
Ambassador cohort
2015

Why a post-qualifications admissions system won’t work

The government has proposed PQA as a change to the current higher education admissions system. But our ambassadors suggest it may have a negative impact.

The event held on 29 March 2021 was hosted by Training Programme ambassador Jane Cahill. Teach First decided to hold this event to discuss the proposed changes to admissions, how this would benefit or pose a risk to disadvantaged students and challenges for schools around its delivery. This is part of our work in engaging our ambassadors in policy discussions.

Quick recap: What is PQA?   

For those unfamiliar with some of the terminology around this policy, ‘post-qualifications admissions (PQA)’ is the umbrella term for any model that uses actual examination results as the centre-piece for the application process. Sitting underneath this are the different stages in the process: post-qualification applications, post-qualifications decisions, and post-qualification offers. The government has argued that all three parts of this admission system would be improved by a change in timing.  

The proposal to change to a PQA system

As a teacher, I’ve experienced the frustrations of supporting students through university applications. When a student submits their first draft of the all-important personal statement, you grimace in the knowledge your efforts might be coming all-too-late. Conversely, when a Year 7 student tells you they want to study Medicine at Cambridge, you want them to put down the pen and have a childhood. The timing of support is absolutely critical, and, at first glance, a post-qualification admissions process seems like a decent solution.

Back in January of this year, the Department for Education (DfE) published a consultation for ‘Post-qualification admissions in higher education: proposed changes’. This sought views on whether to change the current system of higher education admissions and move to a PQA system. This could see students receive and accept university offers after they have received their A level (or Level 3 equivalent) grades, as opposed to the current system where students apply up to a year before starting and are made offers based on predicted grades.

I’m always struck by the sheer number of experienced, thoughtful people working hard to improve participation at university. All too often, we fail to bring these people together to explore the real solutions to ‘levelling up’ our university system. In response to a call out via Teach First’s Networks’ Ambassadors in Policy project, I got in touch with ambassadors and the wider education community and brought them together to discuss and consult on this proposal.

Is the current system bad for equality?

The current UCAS admissions system has its issues that can have a negative impact on education equality, including:

  • In a competitive market, unconditional offers are limiting attainment. Generally, predicted grades are more generous than those awarded by exams.
  • Research around predicted grades also shows that they underestimate high achievers from disadvantaged backgrounds, affecting their ability to apply to high tariff universities.
  • Courses in a university prospectus typically advertise much higher grade requirements than those eventually accepted. 

Were our ambassadors in agreement about PQA?

When chairing a recent Roundtable on the topic, I expected our panellists to join the government’s call for change. They didn’t. Overall, they defended a process that sees three quarters of applicants achieve their first choice at time of great stress upon the education system as a whole. They considered the effect that the move to PQA would have on students, schools, families and young people in general, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

How will a move to PQA impact students from disadvantaged backgrounds?

There are other risks in relation to equality that have the potential to more negatively affect students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and these need to be considered:

  • A shift in the system requires retraining school staff.
  • Families will need to get to grips with a new system at a time of reduced support in the summer.
  • Fewer teachers will be available to guide students through their choices.
  • Third sector organisations will have to uproot their whole approach.

The challenges for schools would vary, for example:

  • Large sixth forms would be faced with a huge change in timetabling for engagement with widening participation, personal statement support and teacher references.
  • Rural settings might face logistical challenges reaching pupils at this time.
  • Smaller sixth forms will have less time to tailor support to the specific options facing students in the window between receiving grades, making applications and evaluating offers.

The roundtable’s panellists and attendees simply weren’t confident that the government is up to the challenge of managing this change at such a turbulent time for the sector.

Schools need more time, not less; perhaps a simpler adjustment of the period between receiving results and the opening of clearing might deliver comparable benefits.

If not PQA, then what?

We can support disadvantaged high-achievers in other ways without discarding the current benefits of the system.

Anne-Marie Canning, CEO of The Brilliant Club proposed a very simple solution: high tariff institutions holding back 10% of their places for this group.

I think this list of alternatives to post-qualification admissions from the roundtable speaks for itself:

  1. Interventions to reduce cultural isolation from ‘culture shock’ at university and the fear of it for applicants.
  2. Targeted support to ensure successful students don’t drop out.
  3. A national hotline for advice in August for students that lack guidance from elsewhere.
  4. Well-timed advice to support students to rethink choices and tackle ‘fear factor’ of expectations.
  5. Boost careers education at primary to support early exposure to university environments and tackle feelings of disconnection.
  6. Contextualised admissions and bonus application spaces.
  7. Improve Access and Participation Plans at University- make them more specific and hold providers to account for them.
  8. Improve student perceptions of apprenticeships and teacher understanding of these.
  9. Improve relationships between universities, admission support services and schools in rural settings.
  10. Tackle competition between universities where it is causing damage through direct measures against unconditional offers.

What next?

The message is clear: post qualification admissions is not the best way forward. We're looking to start a network of people working in the education sector who care about these issues.

If you’d like to be involved in further conversations around the ten alternative solutions proposed, please email Carol Newby, Network Connector at Teach First.

Several panellists and attendees have agreed to adding their name to this blog post. They feel incredibly passionate about the challenges young people face and brought their expertise together to put forward ten alternative solutions.

Contributors:

  • Jane Cahill, ambassador, and Head of English at Central Foundation Girls’ School.
  • Anne-Marie Canning MBE, CEO at The Brilliant Club.
  • Ashley Hodges, Education Destinations Consultant.
  • Ben Tucker, ambassador and Co-Director at Aspire to HE.
  • Christine Kinnear, ambassador and Founder & CEO at With Insight Education.
  • David Ashmore, ambassador, and Curriculum & Training Lead for Science, Academic Mentoring Programme at Teach First.
  • Ella Jo Moncrieffe, Programme Officer at With Insight Education.
  • Hayley Young, ambassador, and Head of Operations at Future Frontiers.
  • Michael Britland, ambassador, and Founder & Chair at TF Careers Network.
  • Phoebe Praill, ambassador and Founder & Director at The Bridging Project.
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