Should the UK be moving to post-qualification admissions?

In short: Maybe. But the decision should not be made now.

Periodically, policy makers and UCAS wonder: shall we reform the admissions system? Would a post-qualification admissions (PQA) system be fairer, more efficient – better? Would more disadvantaged students enter selective higher education institutions if we had PQA? These questions are raised at the moment with UCAS and UUK reviewing the issue.

Many countries, indeed many of our European neighbours successfully practise post-qualification admissions. But, one must exercise caution in transposing experiences from one system to another. For example, in a country like Germany – which uses PQA – few courses have restrictions for enrolment or prior attainment. So, the task for students of enrolling themselves at their chosen university tends to be an awful lot simpler than the current selection set up in the UK. Notably, highly competitive courses such as medicine operate pre-qualification admissions even in Germany.

Furthermore, the way PQA works can vary across countries. While in the UK, students have tended to receive ‘conditional’ offers based on their predicted grades (though they increasingly receive unconditional offers), the PQA system in the USA results in firm admissions decisions for university places that are based on achievement to date, predicted grades, references and test results. This experience illustrates that it could be possible to keep PQA but change how it is undertaken.

Debating PQA around the validity of predictions, however, misses a more interesting point: how do we progress students to universities and why? School-leaving examination results have been sacrosanct as entry tickets of entitlement to participate in higher education and determining which institutions students would be eligible to attend. However, this approach finds itself in the middle of a huge natural experiment: The missed GCSEs and A-Level examinations in 2020 due to the COVID-19 school closures have meant that students were admitted to higher education based on the use of teacher predicted grades instead of examination results. We will only know in years to come how these teacher predictions map onto progress in higher education and, indeed, progression into further education and employment.

It might turn out that teacher predictions predict outcomes in higher education. In this case there may be calls to re-evaluate the weight given to predicted and actual examination performance. Put into other words: predicted grades are predictions with errors and there are rightly concerns that these errors systematically advantage or disadvantage particular students. But standard examinations are also measure of ability and potential for higher education with error, that also possibly advantage and disadvantage different students.

Maybe a student who instils confidence in a teacher that they will achieve highly can also impress teachers at university and employers, and thus succeed through university and employment even if they do not always succeed as highly in examinations; and the ability to ace exams does not always translate into acing, for example, the labour market. It is possible that both teachers’ predictions and examinations offer to higher education providers – albeit slightly different – indications of an applicant’s ability and potential. Once we know how teachers’ predictions map onto university performance, it is conceivable that this could be a useful piece of information for selectors to take into account. Usual caveats around biases systematically favouring or disadvantaging certain social groups would also need to be studied and applied.

While it would be possible to undertake a retrospective study of the power of teacher predictions as compared with examination results, this would be hampered by the fact that, in the past, the examination results decided where students would ultimately go, so the present situation where the teacher predictions are decisive makes it genuinely a different scenario.

Finally, the crisis in exams this year is also an opportunity to review whether additional contextual factors should be systematically considered by universities. For example, electively home-educated children missed out on A-Level examinations and predictions. They were left without grades. A review of admissions processes should take into account the needs of this group and of other individuals who may have the ability and potential to succeed at university but have less standard prior educational journeys. This means looking beyond certified attainment at ways to provide opportunities for accessing higher education.

The pandemic, and changes to admissions in 2020 means now is not the right moment in time to revamp the higher education admissions system. We have waited this long: it seems prudent to now wait another three years for the empirical evidence of how teacher predictions map onto higher education performance. it might be we need to rethink more than the timing of the admissions process and re-evaluate more broadly how and why we admit students.

This blog was kindly contributed by Anna Mountford-Zimdars, Professor of Social Mobility and Director of the Centre for Social Mobility at the University of Exeter. You can find Anna on Twitter @AnnaM_Zimdars.

It was first published by HEPI on 14 November 2020. 



Read More

Evaluating Online Outreach During a Global Health Pandemic

It is fair to say that I did not expect to be writing a blog post under this title back in the early weeks and months of 2020, when the weather was terrible and we gleefully shared space and germs. But on reflection, the first part of the title ‘Evaluating online outreach’ should not be so surprising. The transposition of information and guidance for applicants to higher education from face to face settings – such as in schools, on campus or at events – to a virtual setting has been a possibility for a long time. Universities across the world have engaged in remote education practices for some time.  Yet, it has taken the second part of this title ‘a global health pandemic’ to really throw university outreach into the online landscape, and in the case of 2020, to fend for itself. This has forced widening participation, outreach and recruitment teams into new and innovative – and digital – ways of working, and as a consequence has demanded that the evaluations of those activities respond in step. Read More

Why and how the post-Covid world could offer more opportunities for widening participation in England

This blog was first published by HEPI on 16 June 2020

Written by Renata Albuquerque, Sam Dunnett, Annette Hayton, Colin McCaig & Anna Mountford-Zimdars


The authors of this blog believe that despite the difficulties we all face in the current circumstances, there are constructive ways forward that allow the post-Covid world to offer more equitable opportunities for young people to access the information they need about higher education. There are some generally acknowledged difficulties, not least, as a recent HEPI blog noted the ‘whole scale experiment in online learning’ revealed differences in engagement between synchronous (live session), blended or asynchronous online learning courses.

Young people from all social backgrounds require access to outreach activities but particularly those without a cultural tradition of higher education study. Evaluation requires re-thinking in the current conditions, but it is essential if we are to maintain and improve quality of provision, particularly of long running programmes. However, here we focus on the digital opportunities, relationships between schools, colleges and higher education institutions that can facilitate this to the greatest extent. Read More

Lessons for adapting home learning from parents with children with special educational needs

By Anna Mountford-Zimdars and Hatice Yildirim, University of Exeter

This blog was first published by BERA (British Educational Research Association) on 8 June 2020.

‘Doing less, making learning fun and looking after everyone’s wellbeing’

Most parents of children with special education needs (SEN) were required or chose to school their children from home during the Covid-19 school closure: children with SEN but without an education, health and care plan were not eligible to staying in schools, and participation in schooling among all groups eligible to participate has been significantly lower than policy models predicted, dropping to 1 per cent of all school children in April 2020. Read More

Widening Participation practitioners wont let COVID-19 closures stop them from delivering HE access activities

This blog was first published on the UCL website, on 26 May 2020

By Professor Anna Mountford-Zimdars, Academic Director of the Centre for Social Mobility, University of Exeter
School closures have led to widely discussed concerns regarding the safety, well-being and attainment and progression of students already considered disadvantaged or at risk. Unfortunately, our newly published paper exploring the impact of lockdown reveals widespread cancellation of widening participation (WP) activities such as face-to-face sessions in schools, residential summer schools and university taster days that are designed to help these pupils progress into Higher Education.Encouragingly, ingenuity has been many practitioners watchword and new modes of delivery are springing up that could preserve some activity in the face of adversity and even create new ways of reaching potential students: after initial cancellations, universities are offering alternative virtual offer-holder or taster days as well as support materials and webinars for students, teachers and parents.

Read More

Foundation (courses) for success?

Regardless of your background, access to prestigious Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) has traditionally been a relatively straight forward scenario: you meet the entry requirements, or you don’t. However, things are changing in recognition of the argument that achieving, let’s say, A-level grades BBB in the context of social or economic disadvantage and/or a significantly disrupted education is as good an indicator of academic potential as meeting entry requirements (usually somewhere in the AAB-AAA region) in the absence of disadvantage. So-called contextual offers attempt to look beyond A-level score as a ‘gold standard’ of educational promise and take a more holistic view of the applicant. Indeed, most HEIs already have some sort of contextual admissions process (Sundorph, Vasilev and Coiffait, 2017).  Read More

The National Tutoring Service

Lee Elliot Major, Emily Tyers and Robin Chu

We believe a National Tutoring Service (NTS) could help tackle stark education gaps in the wake of the Covid-19 school closures. The NTS is a proposed coalition of tutoring organisations, universities and schools to mobilise undergraduates and graduates to help improve the achievement of disadvantaged pupils in the core subjects of English and Maths across the UK. The service would have multiple benefits: boosting volunteering among undergraduates, offering employment for graduates, and helping teachers in their efforts to level-up education’s playing field. Read More

How will flaws in predicted grades affect this year’s students?

Lee Elliot Major is Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter.

A version of this blog was published by the Daily Telegraph.

It’s one of those puzzling aspects of our university system that has always caused controversy. In the UK, unlike any other country in the world, students apply for university degrees not with their actual grades, but with grades predicted by their teachers. Universities give conditional offers on the basis of these predicted grades. Offers, under normal circumstances, are then confirmed when students get their actual A-level grades. Read More

Centre for Social Mobility blog goes live!

Welcome to the University of Exeter’s blog for the Centre for Social Mobility.

This is a platform for academics, researchers, students and staff to share their thoughts, research insights and innovative ideas relating to widening participation and improving social mobility at the University of Exeter. We hope that this blog inspires, engages and encourages collaborative working to help improve the educational outcomes for students from under-represented backgrounds.

We hope you enjoy reading the blogs. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please us.