Image to represent university admission processes

 by Jon Cheek
, posted On 14 Jan '19
 Director, UniTasterDays.com

The case for post-qualification admissions: is the undergraduate application process as world-leading as our universities are?

The UK is known for the strength of higher education. With some of the best universities in the World in the UK. But that doesn’t mean the sector should be immune to change. This blog explores the higher education application timeline, following calls for post-qualification admissions (PQA) - and students applying to university after they get their results.

So let's look at two common (but linked) scenarios on results day for some early context. Starting with a positive, then moving to a negative.

Option 1: Results day – a student has exceeded their offer

You will read lots about students not getting the results they want and therefore entering clearing. More on that below. But perhaps less about students trying to trade up on results day through adjustment. Here, a student has exceeded their offer and can therefore in theory go to a “better” university (in their eyes anyway). This means they are likely to make a decision on the next three years or more of their lives in one day - and perhaps based on one phone call.

Option 2: Results day – a students has not achieved their target grade

Having previously worked in undergraduate recruitment for several years prior to UniTasterDays, I unfortunately know first-hand about phone calls from heartbroken applicants on results day. These are the students, who, for whatever reason, miss out on a place at their university of choice.

These very students will have received half a year of communications about how great the university is, would have told their friends and family all about the fantastic university they will be studying at, attended an open day and everything else in between.

Then... they will have gone online on the day of their results to see in an instant that their dream for the last year or more is shattered because they have not achieved the grades they needed to be accepted for their university of choice.

Are these situations avoidable? Could students apply after their results through a PQA system?

The current system expects potentially fragile 17 or 18 year old students who have not achieved the grades they expected, to make a rational choice on their future in just one day. This is not a day they prepare for; this is the same day which may have started with the biggest disappointment of their lives (or the opposite more positive scenario in option 1 - but that will still mean a one day decision process).

So say they pick clearing, and looking for a course and university which still has places available. Not one they wanted you remember, or one they may have considered previously.

What happens then? It usually means phone call after phone call. Universities don’t generally declare course by course the grades they are looking for. The only way to know is by calling each one. Oh, and quickly of course, because those places will be on a first come, first served basis (for those with the right grades).

The current system is NOT Generation Z friendly

We are in the 21st century, where I imagine a prospective student can count the number of phone calls to anyone outside their friends and family on one hand. Those reading this may have read about changes we need to make in the workplace for millennials, but these are post-millennials now, Generation Z to be more precise. Times are changing, but we still use a university application timeline which has been the same for as long as I can remember - and very similar to when I went to university 15 years ago.

We are also told university retention (to put it crudely - ensuring students don't drop out) is so important, prompting various data sets relating to this. It's not rocket science to expect an increase in drop-out rates for students not studying where they want, what they want, and being forced into a one day decision when not in the best frame of mind though is it?

It is not easy for universities either...

Universities are reliant on predicted grades from teachers and a student’s GCSE grades when making offers. So universities themselves are making gambles on what they expect their applicant's grades to be. The rise in popularity of unconditional offers show a way universities are working round this - but that has been subject to mixed reaction to say the least. We posted a blog on that a few months back.

This gamble for universities is not a small one, with £9,250 fees and three year courses. If a university does not hit a student recruitment target by one hundred students, that is over £2.75 million in lost fee income. We will all have seen news about the prospect of universities having financial problems – I will leave that thought with you.

I have no idea what results day (I am careful not to say clearing here, as they will be looking at adjustment too) marketing budgets will be for universities – but I imagine they will be huge. Results day could have a catastrophic financial impact for universities if things don’t go to plan.

How about informed choices?

We are also told of the importance of students making informed university choices. This is despite the student using an application system where they apply for university places, with ranging tariff requirements, without knowing the grades they will have and any concrete proof of where their academic strengths lie (through knowing their most recent results).

Any change would not be easy

To change things may mean the university application start date would be pushed back, November has been mooted, and it may also mean university admissions departments would be dealing with undergraduate applications during August – October rather than throughout the year. It would be a massive change.

I am not for one second suggesting a change would be easy, but I think it is worth further investigation. It may be of those things (smoking indoors anyone) that once the system changed, people were surprised it was ever like it was for so long.

Bar those happily accepting the results day marketing budgets, I personally am not sure who the winners are with the current system. It is important we don’t rest on our laurels - and in doing so, we ensure our processes are fit for purpose and world-leading like the universities are, for the 30% + of school and college leavers utilising it every year.



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