Students should apply to university after they get their exam results, says new report

17 June 2015

Students should apply to university after they receive their exam results, says a new report released by UCU.

  • Seven in 10 staff back a move to university applications being done after students receive exam results
  • Experts back the move to a post-qualification application system
  • Radical overhaul of applications system would resolve issue of inaccurate predicted grades
  • Percentage of students accurately predicted top grades has dropped from a third to just one in five in four years
  • The change would also remove the need for under fire unconditional university offers

Seven in 10 staff* involved with university applications backed a complete overhaul of the current system. UCU said moving to a system which relied on actual achievement, rather than predicted results, would be fairer and ensure the brightest students had a better chance of getting into institutions that most suited their talents.

The report [607kb] also highlighted problems with the UCAS process. Less than a third (32%*) of respondents thought that students understood how their UCAS application would be assessed. Similarly, just 31%* said they thought the UCAS process supports students to make the best application decisions according to their potential.

Inaccurate predicted grades

The union said an overhaul of the system would also address the problem of inaccurate predicted grades and abolish the need for unconditional offers for university places, which are under increasing scrutiny.

Recent research highlights how only half of final A-level results matched estimates made by teachers earlier in the academic year, with almost one in 10 forecasts out by more than one grade.

Meanwhile, the proportion of students predicted to achieve ABB or better who actually achieve that is falling year on year. Just one in five students (21%) predicted to achieve ABB or better in 2014 actually did, compared to almost a third (32.2%) in 2010. See page 67 of this report.

Expert support

Leading social commentator Danny Dorling said the UK should 'follow much of the rest of the civilised world and make university offers based on what young people actually achieve.' He also made the case that schools' predictions are becoming less accurate and said that 'as schools find it hard to predict how well their students will do, they err towards optimism.'

Both the previous and current heads of the university access regulator OFFA, Sir Martin Harris and Les Ebdon, support the introduction of a post-qualification admissions system.

The problem with unconditional offers

UCU said a post-qualification system would also get rid of unconditional university offers. Recent analysis suggests that the number of unconditional offers are on the increase as universities seek to secure student numbers. The union said pressuring youngsters to accept the controversial offers was unethical and there were also fears that some students may become less focused once they had a place secured.

University and College Union general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: 'The time has come for a radical overhaul of how students apply to university. Over two-thirds of staff involved with university admissions back a system that would allow students to apply to university after they get their results.

'It is clear from the research that staff are also unconvinced that students fully understand the current application process, so the time really has come for a complete overhaul. Applying after they get their results would ensure students can accurately make the most of their potential. It would also remove the pressure from schools to overestimate students' marks in an effort to ensure they do not miss out.

'Unconditional offers can place undue pressure on young people to accept an offer and we have heard of incidents where people are being phoned up and told that their offer will be made unconditional if they accept it as a firm choice. What is the point of published entry requirements if they don't apply to all students?'

Danny Dorling said: 'Why do we put our oldest children and youngest adults through such anxiety? Other countries, including our nearest neighbours, manage to arrange university entry so that students choose where they study having already achieved their grades, when they are a little older, and when they are better informed.'

* UCU polled 2,156 of its members at universities and colleges across the UK who help students with their university applications or are involved in the admissions process. Of the 1,120 respondents to the question about when students should reply to university, seven in 10 respondents (70%) backed the creation of a system which would see students apply to university once they had received their grades. 1,427 responded to the question asking if they believed students understood how their application would be assessed and 1,426 to the question asking if respondents believed the UCAS process supported students to make the best application decisions according to their potential.

Last updated: 26 July 2022