Ucas warns of ‘devolution divide’ from university admissions overhaul

A far-reaching overhaul of the university admissions system, which would mean places being offered on the basis of grades rather than predictions, could open up a “devolution divide” without an agreement with the devolved nations, Ucas has said.

Pressure has been growing for a shift from the current system under which sixth formers in England apply to university in January using grades predicted by their teachers, before sitting A-levels in late spring and accepting university offers in June.

Following a review, Ucas, the universities admissions service, has now drawn up two proposals, both of which advocate post-qualifications admissions. The first keeps applications ahead of results day in August, with offers based on actual results.

The second proposes moving the whole applications process beyond results day and pushing back university start dates until January. It is likely to be less popular with the sector and government because it would put the UK system out of synch with the rest of the world.

John Cope, the director of strategy, policy and public affairs at Ucas, said the aim was to make the system fairer for disadvantaged students. However, he said: “In the case of both options, working with the devolved nations will be essential or else a devolution divide will open up, with nothing stopping Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish universities walking away from Ucas and all the benefits that a UK admissions shared service brings.”

“This would be terrible for students, creating four fragmented and out-of-sync systems. We also need to recognise the pressure placed on universities and colleges by both options, with less time for interviews and other assessments, which is especially relevant to the arts, medicine or nursing,” he added, writing in the Times.

The Ucas proposals are the latest in a long line of attempts to move England to a post-qualification admissions system dating back to 2006, but on each occasion the status quo has remained after opposition from universities and school leaders.

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Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, and the higher education watchdog in England, the Office for Students, have also been conducting their own reviews into admissions, which will be published soon.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said reform was long overdue. “Teachers work diligently to predict grades, but it is not an exact science and never can be. And in recent years universities have overused unconditional offers as a way of getting bums on seats, which demotivates students in their A-levels, and can lead to them choosing a course which doesn’t suit them.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We remain committed to delivering on our manifesto pledge to improve the admissions system. We are exploring options that will ensure it is as fair and transparent as possible, and works for every student.”

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