In Depth

Is it time to end university offers based on predicted grades?

Labour is calling for drastic overhaul of current system

Labour has pledged to scrap the system of offering university places based on predicted grades, in order to avoid discrimination against disadvantaged pupils.

Instead, the party would introduce a post-qualifications admissions (PQA) system in which students would apply to university courses after receiving their final A-level marks, reports the BBC.

The plan was announced by shadow education secretary Angela Rayner as more than 300,000 school-leavers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland awaited the results of their A-levels and other qualifications this week.

Rayner argues that the current admissions system is “deeply unfair” and “isn’t working for students”, adding: “Radical action is needed to change that.”

A PQA system would also see the end of unconditional offers, where students are offered a guaranteed university place based on predicted grades, regardless of their eventual exam results. Two in five students received unconditional offers in 2019, reports The Independent.

Labour says that teachers’ predicted grades are wrong “in the vast majority of cases” and that disadvantaged students and those from minority backgrounds have “lost out on opportunities on the basis of those inaccurate predictions”.

Those claims are backed up by figures from The Sutton Trust. The social mobility charity says that “research has found that high-attaining disadvantaged students are more likely to have their grades under-predicted than their better-off peers”.

2011 study by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills found that the rate of correct A-level predictions was lowest among black students, at 39.1%, while white students had the highest grade prediction accuracy, at 53%.

Overall, 51.7% of A-level predictions were correct.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, says that Labour’s proposed reforms would help “level the playing field for students, remove the problems associated with unconditional offers and end the chaotic clearing scramble”.

But Clare Marchant, chief executive of university admissions service Ucas, says research has shown that a PQA system could “significantly disadvantage” both disabled students and those from minority backgrounds, reports Sky News.

“Universities and colleges need time for interviews, auditions and considering contextual information about applicants, and time to put in place support services to help care leavers, first in family and disabled students transition into higher education,” she argues. 

Ucas figures show that under the current system, about 78% of applicants receive their first choice of university or college, regardless of their background. 

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told the BBC that reforming the system would “represent a significant and complex change”.

“It would be extremely difficult to manage the entire applications process in the few weeks between A-level results in mid-August and the beginning of university terms in September or October, and it is likely that we would need to rethink the entire calendar.”

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