UK university admission system may undergo major overhaul

For more than 50 years, applicants to UK universities have followed the same procedure. However, this may all change soon, as the University and College Admissions Service (UCAS) has proposed a revamp of the undergraduate admission process, which will see students applying to university after they receive their exam results, rather than before as at present. This change may come into effect as soon as 2016.

The key findings of a UCAS review into the admissions procedure were published in a report titled Admissions Process Review Consultation. The report found the current system of applying to universities to be ‘complex and difficult to navigate’ and not easily understood by applicants. The current system has been put under pressure by the huge surge in the number of applicants in the last five decades. There were only 80,003 applications in 1963 compared to almost 700,000 in 2010.

The proposed post-results system of application is considered by UCAS to be potentially more user-friendly because it will be based on actual rather than predicted grades. Evidence suggests that there may be confusion among some applicants about how the current system works. UCAS states that in some courses almost 50% of applicants submitted predicted grades which failed to meet the minimum entry requirements. More than 30% of applicants provided incomplete information, and this percentage was higher among international students, who found it hard to understand the system.

The changes suggested by UCAS involve students sitting their A-levels 15 days earlier. This way they could receive their results and begin applying in July. The current results publication date is the third Thursday in August. Universities will let students know their fate between late September and early October, coinciding with the start of the academic year. Although this shake-up may result in major changes in the current ‘timetable’ of admissions, the alterations have been described as ‘manageable’ by UCAS. The choice of universities could also be limited to just two instead of the five allowed currently.

The proposed amendments to the system have been hailed by experts and prominent players in the UK higher education industry as necessary. David Willets, Minister for Universities and Science, hailed the suggestions as ‘good news’ which will make application process to universities ‘simpler and more efficient’. Professor Eric Thomas, President of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bristol, expressed his support for the review proposals while adding that all parties involved must be consulted before a decision is made. “Clearly the key priority must be to ensure that any changes genuinely benefit applicants, and also that they do not hinder widening participation or fair access for students from lower income and other under-represented groups,” he said in a media statement.

The ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach of the current system was found to have narrowed the opportunities for international students, leaving them ‘frustrated’. James Duran, Press Officer, UCAS, says, “Last year 16% of all applicants were domiciled outside of the UK. Many international applicants feel disadvantaged by having to fit in with the UK academic timetable which may be different from their own. Mostly higher education institutions separate admissions for international and UK students.”

Anna Blackaby, International Press Officer at the University of Warwick, says, “Every year the University of Warwick attracts significant numbers of outstanding international undergraduate students, and we would not want to see them in any way disadvantaged by the new system.”

Under the proposed system, that application period would be divided into three windows in order to accommodate large numbers of applicants: Apply 1, Apply 2 and Apply 3. International students would be able to apply any time of the year through Apply 1.

Apply 1 would offer the flexible approach of allowing students to apply at any time during the year. It would be open for applicants who already have their results, and as such would best suit gap-year students, international students (who may have different admissions cycle than the UK) and Scottish applicants, among others.

Apply 2 would be the ‘main’ part of the admissions cycle, attracting the majority of applications from students who have taken their exams in the same academic year and wish to enter a university. Apply 2 would open towards the end of June, with applicants to receive responses from universities by the third week of September.

Apply 3 would invite applications from the end of July to early October and would primarily serve students who do not receive offers during Apply 2.

For international students like Yuanlong Qiao, who used the current system to apply to a UK university, the new system holds more promise and offers a clearer structure. “The UCAS proposals seem fairer and will hopefully offer everyone more time to properly research which university is best for them before submitting their applications,” he says.

It should not be forgotten that these proposals are yet to be made final. UCAS is still far away from implementing any of these suggestions and is running a consultation period until 20 January, 2012, during which suggestions can be made. After that, a report of the proposed changes will be made public in March 2012.

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