Universities have very limited controls at their disposal to manage their numbers. They can raise their entry grades (but this ideally needs to be signalled well in advance to potential applicants), require highly specific subject requirements (for example, insisting that all offer holders have to achieve an A* grade in Chemistry at A-level), sift candidates through use of admissions assessments, or require candidates to be interviewed or auditioned. All of these interventions require significant investment of time and resource, and many require several years to develop as an effective selection tool. The only short-term response is to limit the number of offers, which can carry reputational risks, particularly if it results in significant numbers of applicants not securing an offer of admission, but the closer we get to 2030, the less time there will be to develop the other alternatives. Even where controlling the number of offers is a viable proposition, there will be an increasing need for clarity and transparency in the way that offer-making decisions are made and justified if confidence in the fairness of admissions processes is to be maintained. The recent refresh of the Fair Admissions code of practice by Universities UK is a clear indication of a wish for the sector to get on the front-foot, and head off any specific legislative interventions by governments or regulatory oversight bodies, such as the Office for Students in England.
A system based on predicted academic performance and teacher references also needs to have some assurance that the likely distribution of final grades achieved by applicants will have some stability; this proved one of the greatest challenges in managing applicant intakes during the period of the pandemic, and it could take until the 2025 intake before we see a full return to the stability in student performance that was a feature of the pre-pandemic exam system, as each of the devolved nations take slightly different approaches to managing grading of post-16 qualifications.
Where does this leave potential applicants and those who will be advising them in their course and university choices?
Firstly, it requires candidates to fully research and understand the expectations and requirements that are being asked of them if they are to secure an offer. In return higher education will need to provide transparent and clear information on their expectations, as well as support the development of resources that assist candidates in understanding the level of competition and profiles of successful candidates in previous offer cycles.
Candidates will need to also determine how best to use the choices at their disposal. Those who opt to cluster all their options around a narrow range of highly competitive and selective courses and universities are unlikely to receive many offers. This also however requires universities to be honest and open in setting their entry requirements and selection criteria. It is in no-one’s interests for large numbers of candidates to waste applications for courses where they are not remotely qualified to secure a place.
Finally, there may be elements of the existing admissions process that could be adjusted to manage the volume of applications an individual university or course would receive. The current UCAS process allows candidates five choices; a reduction to four would immediately alter the volume that most universities would then have to consider, and potentially allow admissions staff more opportunity to focus on those who are at the border for receipt of an offer. Over the thirty years that I have been involved in admissions work, applicants have had as many as nine choices (the year that UCCA and PCAS merged); five is a fairly arbitrary number. A reduction in current choices would need to align with applicants having access to very good advice and guidance support, universities providing clear and transparent information, and scope to provide an extended UCAS Extra operation to ensure that those holding no offers from their original four choices could seek out additional opportunities. This sort of intervention needs to be carefully modelled and tested, to ensure there are no unintended consequences, and would require extensive consultation with the full range of stakeholders before any implementation. Changes will be required however, particularly as any post-qualification process is proving very difficult to implement without significant changes in the timing of school and university years alongside different timescales and approaches for assessing candidate performance prior to entering higher education.
Whatever the final outcome, it is clear that there will need to be proactive engagement by all stakeholders in the next 2-3 years, to avoid the application process grinding to a halt as universities struggle to make offer decisions in the available timescale.
iFor those interested in seeing the detail, Alan Bullock’s regular blog updating the development of degree and modern apprenticeship opportunities since March 2020 makes compelling reading: Alan Bullock Careers Blog. Accessed January 25th, 2023.
Director of Recruitment, Admissions and Participation, University of Cambridge
Mike joined the University of Cambridge in October 2021, having previously worked as Director of Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach at the University of Bath (2014-21) and University of Oxford (2006-2014), and Head of Undergraduate Admissions and Student Recruitment at the University of Essex (1998-2006).
He is Vice Chair of the UCAS Council, the stakeholder advisory group that advises the UCAS Trustee Board on sector issues. He is also a Trustee of the Council of International Schools and AQA. He has recently joined the Sutton Trust’s Education Advisory Board, and the Rethinking Assessment Advisory Board.