Five steps UCAS is taking to reform the undergraduate admissions process

Thursday 12 January 2023, Higher education

by Kim Eccleston, Head of Strategy and Reform – Strategy, Policy and Public Affairs, UCAS

Five steps UCAS is taking to reform the undergraduate admissions process

Kim Eccleston, Head of Strategy and Reform – Strategy, Policy and Public Affairs, UCAS

First published on the HEPI website on 12 January 2023.

At UCAS, we are continually working to improve the admissions service to serve applicants better and broaden participation for all students, whether pursuing a traditional undergraduate degree or an apprenticeship. As an independent charity, fair admissions, transparency and putting applicants’ best interests at the heart of the system are absolutely central to our role. Over the past three years, we have been working to develop and deliver new improvements to provide a more flexible system for all when exploring and connecting to choices.

Why are we introducing these changes?

We first published areas for improvement in our Reimagining UK Admissions report, released in April 2021. The report was informed by the voices of 13,000 students and outlined a student-centred programme of reform. 

Building on those findings, we have continued our engagement with the sector on reforming and improving admissions, recognising that while the Department for Education opted not to progress with post-qualification admissions at that time, the consultation revealed appetite across all four parts of the UK for alternative approaches to innovation. We have **TODAY** published a new report, Future of Undergraduate Admissions, which outlines five key areas of immediate focus.

What are we doing?

Each year, UCAS supports over 1.5 million students to explore opportunities and over 700,000 students from 200 countries and territories around the world to apply to higher education in the UK. This means that, as the central admissions service, we have fantastic insight into students’ behaviour and how they navigate their options. Through these upcoming reforms, we aim to introduce greater personalisation for students making post-secondary choices, give more structure to free text sections of the UCAS application (specifically, the academic reference and personal statement), enhance visibility of the range of grade profiles and deliver new initiatives to support further widening access and participation. 

Of these, the key area I want to highlight is personal statements. We know this aspect of the UCAS application attracts a lot of attention (including in a recent HEPI Debate Paper), and we have been carrying out widespread engagement to determine its value and whether it can be enhanced by changes. In the past year, we have consulted widely with 1,200 domestic and international students, over 170 teachers and advisers and over 100 universities and colleges as well as engaging with governments, regulators and the charity sector across the UK. 

Students tell us time and time again that they want the space to advocate for themselves, in their own words, to demonstrate achievements beyond their grades. Our survey of 2022 cycle applicants found most students are in favour of personal statements – 89% of respondents said they felt that the purpose of the personal statement is extremely clear or clear, while 72% felt positive about it. Similarly, teachers and advisers told us they value the role that the process of writing a personal statement plays in helping their students affirm their choices for themselves. However, 83% of students surveyed reported that the process of writing a personal statement is stressful, with 79% agreeing that the statement is difficult to complete without support.

Based on this feedback, we will be reframing the current format into a series of questions. Our engagement to date has identified six key areas:

  1. motivation for the course;
  2. preparedness for the course;
  3. preparation through other experiences;
  4. extenuating circumstances;
  5. preparedness for study; and
  6. preferred learning style.

We believe this will create a more supportive framework which in turn will help guide students through their responses by removing the guesswork, as well as capturing the information universities and colleges have told us they really need to know from applicants when it comes to offer-making. 

What happens next?

It should go without saying that reform is an evolving process, and we will keep engaging with the sector to help us shape the delivery of these reforms. We particularly welcome feedback on our approach to personal statements, as we continue to test and validate our proposed questions which we plan to introduce in 2024 for 2025 entry, and to ensure the new approach makes it easier for students to write their application and offers clarity to teachers, advisers, universities and colleges alike. 

Reform and constant improvement are in UCAS’s DNA and through collaboration, we can work together to ensure students feel fully informed and supported through each step of their admissions journey.

Read UCAS’ Future of Undergraduate Admissions report.