Who gets to go to university or college and which one they go to is one of the most pressing issues both for individual students and the sector as a whole. As the A-level and BTEC exam results this year have shown all too clearly, issues of fairness and equality of opportunity are of paramount importance.23
There is authoritative evidence that, despite the efforts of teachers, parents and pupils, the recent progress on narrowing the attainment gap between the most and least advantaged students has been put into reverse.24 Schools and colleges will be particularly focused on supporting students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds as they prepare for the next stage of their education. For these students to make it to university, they need to beat the odds. While more of them are achieving this than ever before, much more needs to be done to level the playing field and unlock potential across all parts of the country.
We are clear that this cannot be the responsibility of schools and colleges alone. Universities are working with them to remove the barriers to success by raising expectations, broadening horizons and helping disadvantaged students to achieve the grades they need to secure a university place. This resonates with the OfS’s first regulatory objective, to ensure that all students from all backgrounds with the ability and desire to undertake higher education are supported to access, succeed in, and progress from higher education.
Even before the pandemic, there were stark inequalities. Department for Education statistics show that only 26.3 per cent of state-funded and special school pupils who received free school meals at 15 entered higher education by the age of 19 in 2018-19, compared with 45.1 per cent of students who did not receive free school meals. In 2018-19, 57.8 per cent of pupils in the most educationally advantaged areas went on to higher education, compared with 27.3 per cent in the most educationally disadvantaged areas. This gap has narrowed: since 2009-10, the progression rate for the most advantaged has increased by 6.6 percentage points, compared with 9.3 percentage points for the most disadvantaged.25 Narrowing these educational inequities remains of critical importance.
To enable them to make informed choices, all potential students should be able to access clear and impartial information, advice and guidance about higher education. Disadvantaged students also need help to overcome the academic, financial and cultural barriers to progression. Better informed choices can result in more students choosing the right course to fit their interests, aspirations and qualifications. In turn, this improves their chances of completing their studies successfully and achieving positive outcomes later in life. Impartial and accessible guidance has been all the more important this year amid fears about how the pandemic would affect exam results and higher education over the short and longer term.
The pandemic had a severe impact on how grades were awarded, whether places at universities and colleges were granted, and whether prospective students were able to access necessary information and guidance about higher education given the closure of schools and limited access to advisers. Prospective students also needed to contend with the loss of learning in schools and colleges. Students, the sector, the OfS and the government all played a vital role in ensuring as far as possible that fairness and the required support could be maintained.
Information, advice and guidance for prospective students
By the middle of January 2020, over 568,000 prospective students had already applied through UCAS to start university in the autumn.26 Only a couple of months later, these and many more applicants found their schools and colleges closed, their exams cancelled, and opportunities to visit their potential campuses withdrawn because of the pandemic.
Choosing a higher education provider is complex and this year the pandemic added a huge amount of uncertainty to that decision-making process. Even with UCAS deadlines extended, prospective students were faced with a very different set of factors influencing their decisions about what, where and how to study from those they anticipated when they first made their applications.
Impact of coronavirus on choice
Providers had to move the face-to-face and on-campus activities they would normally offer online. Virtual open days quickly became the norm and may be here to stay in some form even as social distancing rules are relaxed.
Despite the challenges for providers in delivering these events, there are advantages for students: no travel costs, the ability to access resources online after the event, and greater flexibility to fit around other life commitments. Some providers were able to move their usual higher education and careers fairs online, allowing prospective students to hear from multiple institutions at once with advice on the whole university experience. Providers used online chat functions, email, phone and social media to provide their applicants and offer-holders with the essential direct, one-to-one contact. Platforms like Unibuddy and the Student Room allowed prospective students to find out from current students what studying in lockdown was like.
Outreach activities for younger age groups similarly shifted to online or blended models. Summer schools, one-to-one mentoring and academic support programmes were all swiftly adapted by providers and third-sector organisations alike. With outreach primarily designed to support people from more disadvantaged groups – who are often the least likely to have good internet access – we saw many providers delivering print versions of online resources directly to students’ homes, matching students with tutors who could work with whatever technology families had available, or even providing internet connections to those most in need. Disruption to core curriculum delivery for school pupils and the closure of libraries saw many providers stepping in to help bridge the gap, supporting pupils from Year 7 upwards with reading, writing, maths, creative subjects, careers planning and soft skills development.
The role of the OfS
Our guidance on consumer protection during the pandemic was clear that providers still had legal responsibilities to make certain information available to prospective and current students, including information about costs, complaints, terms and conditions and any changes to teaching methods.27 Beyond this bare minimum, many universities and colleges found innovative ways both to support those prospective students who were already known to them, and to reach out to those who might not traditionally have considered higher education.
The gaps identified in our student information, advice and guidance strategy concerning how different groups of students are able to access or act on information and guidance came into even sharper focus this year.28 But once the scale of the pandemic became clear, we worked quickly to develop additional resources to help applicants navigate the increasingly complex landscape. A regularly updated coronavirus hub on the Discover Uni website included information on key topics like school exams, the admissions process and student finance, as well as signposting other official and trustworthy sources of information.29 We also developed some downloadable resources for applicants and their teachers and advisers. These booklets – which could be easily printed by schools and sent to pupils struggling with internet access – included tips on researching options while waiting for results, advice on deciding whether to withdraw or defer, and a guide to what would happen after results came out.
The Uni Connect programme, funded by the OfS, brings together 29 partnerships of universities, colleges and other local partners. Working collaboratively, they aim to increase the number of young people from underrepresented groups who go into higher education by focusing on local areas where participation is low, and offering activities, advice and information on the benefits and realities of going to university or college. In response to the pandemic, these partnerships rapidly adapted their long-term, sustained outreach work with younger age groups, and refocused some of their activity on targeted information and guidance for Year 13 students who were due to start university or college in autumn 2020.
Admissions and accessibility during the pandemic
With the changes in how A-level results were awarded in the summer, largely using centre-assessed grades, some universities and colleges had more applicants than places. In response, we emphasised that they should do all they could to make sure that those students with the grades and potential to succeed did not miss out on their first choice course.30 UCAS analysis showed that this applied to approximately 15,000 students.31
Where a course did not have the capacity to offer a place to a student, the university was encouraged to discuss reasonable alternatives, such as a place on another course or on the same course the following year. To ensure that as many students as possible could take up their places this year, the government lifted the cap on places for domestic students in medicine, dentistry, and undergraduate teacher training. It also provided OfS teaching grant funding for 2020-21 to assist with the higher costs associated with the increased capacity in subjects such as medicine, nursing, laboratory-based science and engineering.
We stressed that universities and colleges should continue to honour the commitments that they had already made to support vulnerable and disadvantaged students as they firm up conditional offers. On the whole, providers worked with government to ensure that as many students as possible secured places.
The uncertainty over how grades would be awarded and how that would affect their university or college places was challenging for many students. When they embark on their courses, some will need support because of loss of learning at school and to improve their wellbeing and mental health. Wellbeing services at universities have worked remotely during the pandemic, while the Student Space has been set up during the pandemic to provide information and support.
Unfair practices during the pandemic
In March, at the beginning of the lockdown, we decided to pause nearly all OfS consultations to reduce the burden on higher education providers – including the admissions review. At the same time, it became necessary to consider the immediate impact of the pandemic on admissions. Universities and colleges were faced with a range of unprecedented challenges and were understandably concerned about a potential loss of income. The moratorium on unconditional offer-making announced by the Universities Minister on 23 March 2020 was a short-term measure to prevent universities and colleges from making offers that could put pressure on worried students to accept courses that might not be in their best long-term interests. It also aimed to prevent a destabilising effect on the sector, whereby some providers might have tried to secure a much larger share of a smaller pool of students.
During this time we developed proposals to prevent providers from engaging in conduct which, in the view of the OfS, could reasonably be expected to have a material negative effect on the stability or integrity of the English higher education sector. Following a consultation, in July, we introduced Condition Z3, a time-limited condition of registration which prohibits any higher education provider from making ‘conditional unconditional’ offers to UK students, where the ‘unconditional’ element is conditional on the student making the provider their first or only choice, and from making false or misleading statements about other providers which have the intention or effect of discouraging students from attending them.32 Other unconditional offers to UK students that could materially affect the stability and integrity of the English higher education sector could also be found to breach the condition. However, to provide clarity for providers and students, the condition expressly permits unconditional offers to be made to UK students in certain specified circumstances.33 The condition was implemented specifically to manage the extraordinary circumstances associated with the pandemic, and will not be in place after 30 September 2021, but could be removed earlier than that, following consultation.
The OfS had made clear before the pandemic that the rapid rise in unconditional offer making, particularly ‘conditional unconditional’ offers, was a cause for concern.34 We had also highlighted how contextual offers identify the potential of students from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed in higher education and their importance to making progress on fair access.35
In February 2020, the OfS published an exploratory consultation looking at the admissions system. This consultation identified 10 issues ranging from the discrepancy between advertised and actual entry requirements through to stakeholders’ perceptions of whether the system is fair and effective.36 The OfS review proposed a set of changes to the ‘Schwartz principles’ of 2004 that should underpin a fair admissions system, with an emphasis on making the principles student- rather than provider-focused.37 In addition, it set out three possible models of admissions reform. These included reforming the current system without fundamentally altering the current admissions timeline, or moving to one of two different models of post-qualification admissions: post-qualification offers or post-qualification applications.
Although the OfS decided to pause its review as part of its reduction of regulatory requirements at the start of the pandemic, the questions we posed in the review have influenced further thinking. In November 2020, the Secretary of State for Education announced his intention to consult on reform of the university admissions system, signalling a desire for a shift to a new model of post-qualification admissions.38 Earlier that month, UCAS announced its intention to explore two possible models for post-qualification admissions,39 and Universities UK (UUK) published a set of recommendations from its own fair admissions review which also supported a change to post-qualification admissions.40 In line with the OfS’s proposals in January 2020, UUK also recommended a set of changes to the Schwartz principles to make them more student-focused, a move that we welcome.
High-attaining students from underrepresented areas are more likely than others to receive grade predictions from their teachers that are lower than the grades they ultimately achieve and to encounter barriers to progression into higher education. This means that they are likely to benefit from a system in which offers are made on the basis of grades achieved rather than predicted grades, and where there is greater clarity about contextual offer making, particularly if this includes threshold entry requirements for particular groups of students and for the most selective courses.
Post-qualification admissions should not, though, be considered a ‘magic bullet’ for fair access to higher education.41 School attainment is still the most influential factor for university admissions and there is evidence that the pandemic may have reversed progress on narrowing the attainment gap to the position at the start of the last decade.42 It will be crucial also for disadvantaged students to be supported through sustained advice and guidance in order to create pathways through to the right course for them. There has also, at this point, been only limited consideration of how the admissions system works for students other than those wanting to study full-time soon after school or college.
The events of the past year have demonstrated the centrality of higher education to the ambitions and expectations of students and prospective students, their families and communities throughout the country. This makes it all the more important that students get the advice and support they need to make the right choices. At the same time, the admissions system needs to enable universities and colleges to identify students with the potential to succeed, and enable students to reach the course that will unlock their full potential.
To ensure fair admissions and clear guidance for students in the future, the OfS will take the following actions:
- Following the update of Discover Uni in autumn 2020, which involved a new look and feel and improved course pages, further content and functionality is planned, including a new and improved compare and search functionality for courses, and more content for international students and mature students.
- We will continue to be vigilant in monitoring the impacts of the pandemic to take action to support fair admissions.
- We will work closely with the Department for Education, UCAS and UUK on the next phase of their work. In doing so, we will consider whether there is a case for further investigation of the issues identified in our admissions review, in light of the proposals that emerge during the coming year. In particular, we will consider the extent to which any proposed reforms consider the experiences of part-time, mature, international and postgraduate students. If there is a case to relaunch our review of admissions with a more focused set of considerations, then we will do so.
Progressing to higher education can open up greater opportunities for students. Especially in the face of uncertain exam procedures, the admissions process must be underpinned by the principle and practice of fair and equal opportunity for all. Over the coming year we will explore how fairness and equity in admissions can be maintained and improved in the future.
23 Sutton Trust, ‘A-level results and university access 2020’, August 2020 (available at https://www.suttontrust.com/our-research/a-level-results-and-university-access-2020/).
24 Education Policy Institute, ‘Analysis: A-level results 2020’, August 2020 (https://epi.org.uk/publications-and-research/analysis-a-level-results-2020/).
25 Department for Education, ‘Widening participation in higher education 2020’, July 2020 (https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/widening-participation-in-higher-education-2020).
26 UCAS, ‘2020 cycle applicant figures: 15 January deadline’, February 2020 (https://www.ucas.com/data-and-analysis/undergraduate-statistics-and-reports/ucas-undergraduate-releases/applicant-releases-2020/2020-cycle-applicant-figures-15-january-deadline).
27 OfS, ‘Student and consumer protection during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic’, October 2020 (www.officeforstudents.org.uk/for-students/student-and-consumer-protection-during-coronavirus/).
28 These include absence of information for mature and part-time students, and the fact that first in family and other underrepresented groups are less likely to have access to good information. (OfS, ‘Providing information, advice and guidance for students’, www.officeforstudents.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/student-information-and-data/providing-information-advice-and-guidance-for-students/student-information-advice-and-guidance-strategy/).
29 Discover Uni, ‘Coronavirus (COVID-19) information’ (https://discoveruni.gov.uk/corona-covid-19-information/).
30 OfS, ‘Office for Students highlights need for fairness for all students with centre-assessed grades’, August 2020 (www.officeforstudents.org.uk/news-blog-and-events/press-and-media/office-for-students-highlights-need-for-fairness-for-all-students-with-centre-assessed-grades/).
31 UCAS, ‘UCAS receives upgraded centre assessed grades and provides analysis on number of upgraded students able to meet conditions of original first choice’, August 2020 (https://www.ucas.com/corporate/news-and-key-documents/news/ucas-receives-upgraded-centre-assessed-grades).
32 OfS, ‘Regulatory notice 5: Condition Z3 – Temporary provisions for sector stability and integrity’, July 2020 (available at www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/regulatory-notice-5-condition-z3-temporary-provisions-for-sector-stability-and-integrity/).
33 OfS, ‘Regulatory notice 5: Condition Z3 – Temporary provisions for sector stability and integrity’, July 2020 (available at www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/regulatory-notice-5-condition-z3-temporary-provisions-for-sector-stability-and-integrity/), p3.
34 OfS, ‘Unconditional offers: Serving the interests of students?’, January 2019 (available at www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/unconditional-offers-serving-the-interests-of-students/).
35 OfS, ‘Contextual admissions: Promoting fairness and rethinking merit’, May 2019 (available at www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/contextual-admissions-promoting-fairness-and-rethinking-merit/).
36 OfS, ‘Consultation on the higher education admissions system in England’, February 2020 (www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/consultation-on-the-higher-education-admissions-system-in-england/).
37 For the ‘Schwartz principles’, see Admissions to Higher Education Steering Group, ‘Fair admissions to higher education: Recommendations for good practice’, September 2004 (available at https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/5284/), pp7-8.
38 Department for Education, ‘Government plans for post-qualification university admissions’, November 2020 (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-plans-for-post-qualification-university-admissions).
39 UCAS, ‘UCAS maps reform of higher education admissions’, November 2020 (https://www.ucas.com/corporate/news-and-key-documents/news/ucas-maps-reforms-higher-education-admissions).
40 Universities UK, ‘Fair admissions review’, November 2020 (available at https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/policy-and-analysis/reports/Pages/fair-admissions-review.aspx), pp4-5.
41 Murphy, Richard, and Gill Wyness ‘Minority report: The impact of predicted grades on university admissions of disadvantaged groups’, Education Economics, May 2020 (available at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09645292.2020.1761945), pp333-350; Harrison, Neil and Richard Waller, ‘Challenging discourses of aspiration: The role of expectations and attainment in access to higher education’, September 2018 (available at https://uwe-repository.worktribe.com/output/857920), pp914-938.
42 Education Endowment Foundation, ‘Impact of school closures on the attainment gap: Rapid evidence assessment’, June 2020 (available at https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/covid-19-resources/best-evidence-on-impact-of-school-closures-on-the-attainment-gap/), p17.