Admissions in the headlines – again

Roderick Smith

Lead Consultant, AUA Consulting

Roderick Smith has a 25 year career in HE professional services, across a range of roles within central university services and in academic departments.  In his most recent role as Director of Admissions at the University of Birmingham Roderick spearheaded improvements in organisation, systems, regulatory compliance and customer services.  Roderick is now part of our consultant team within AUA Consulting.

University admissions usually hits the headlines when something goes wrong, either individually or collectively at a university or national level. A case in point being the fiasco of August 2020, when universities made acceptance decision for home undergraduates on the basis of the grades provided by the examinations boards, only to be told a week later that a completely different set of grades, now based on teacher predictions, should be used for decision making. On the whole, universities across the UK rose to the challenge but with significant disruption for students and the issues playing havoc with our recruitment targets and number planning.

Then, a couple of months later, Universities UK (UUK) published the results of its “Fair Admissions Review”. The timing could not have been better for those wanting to see changes in the way admissions is managed in the UK higher education system. Well informed and certainly well intentioned, this review puts forward proposals that most working in admissions would not quibble with – fairness and transparency in the process, extensive and helpful information for applicants, a greater emphasis on supporting “contextual admissions”, and greater coordination between universities, UCAS and the government. So far, so good, although as ever the devil will be in the detail of how any changes are implemented and policed.

“Stay informed, using information from the various sector bodies and attendance at events such as the AUA and UCAS conferences.”

However, it was the eighth and last of the proposals that set hares running – further consideration should be given to a reformed undergraduate admissions system based on a post-qualification admissions (PQA) model — although it should be noted that the UUK Review backs a form of post-qualification offer, rather than a full post-qualification application model. This will be explored further by UUK over the next 12 months. That this was recommended is not a surprise. This proposal comes round on a regular basis and the cynical might say that it was about time it came round again. Whilst this might be true, I think that this time it will stick, in some form or another. There are several reasons for this, not least the fact that although the Office for Students’ Consultation on the Admissions Process has been paused, it will re-start at some point in the future and will probably also recommend some form of PQA. It should also be noted that many of the strictures around “fairness” in the UUK review would be easier to implement with PQA or a variant of it.

So what does this mean for a busy admissions office? First of all, check that all of your current processes fully align with the recommendations in the UUK report. The Schwartz Report of 2004 covered a lot of the same ground, but this is Schwartz on steroids, and as such will require changes to processes, working practices, and governance (who is ultimately accountable for compliance across an institution?). Secondly, stay informed, using information from the various sector bodies and attendance at events such as the AUA and UCAS conferences. And third, consider taking advantage of the support available from AUA Consulting – whilst PQA will be new for most in the UK higher education sector, our team of AUA Consultants have a wealth of experience in admissions, alongside expertise around governance issues, how to turn principles and policies into best practice, and how to implement change in a busy working environment.

If you’d like to find out how AUA Consulting can help your organisation explore the issues discussed in this blog, email  consulting@aua.ac.uk.  Find out more at www.aua.ac.uk/aua-consulting.

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