UCAS reforms: PQA by Barnaby Lenon

Should we move to a system whereby pupils only apply to universities once they have got their results?  This is called PQA – post-qualification admissions.  

There are two obvious models which are the subject of the DfE consultation, open to 13 May. International students are excluded from these models.  

Model 1)  Post-qualification applications….apply after you get your results

Model 2)  Post-qualification offers… students apply at the same time as they currently do. However, applications are held in the system until the A-level results date and offers are only made once results are known.

PQA chart
PQA chart


1) From the perspective of many schools there is not much wrong with the current UCAS admissions system. Most Year 12 students are able to spend time thinking and planning, many go on open days, most get offers and go to university. Teachers have adequate time in the autumn of Year 13 to write references. The system works.

Cramming the while shooting-match into the months of August and September, after results are out, would surely be much less good.

2) But what about disadvantaged applicants? There is, as usual, much virtue-signalling coming out of Gavin Williamson’s office. He quotes research from UCL’s Institute of Education which shows nearly one in four (24%) high-ability (got AAB or better) applicants from lower-income households had their results under-predicted between 2013 to 2015 – 2,765 high ability disadvantaged students in this period.

2,765 over three years is 922 a year. 922 pa out of 516,000 students in the cohort. A tiny number, which suggests the opposite conclusion to the one drawn by the Secretary of State. In fact disadvantaged pupils are much more likely to be over-predicted than under-predicted.  Disadvantaged students have more over-prediction than advantaged students so to say, as the Education Secretary does ‘We need to radically change a system which breeds low aspiration and unfairness.’ is gibberish.

Going to a less good university than you could have done is called ‘under-matching’. In the past ten years I have worked with pupils from lower income homes in East London and inner Birmingham and I know why lower income students with good A-levels apply for low tariff universities. It has absolutely nothing to do with teachers under-predicting. It happens because these pupils often have little concept of a hierarchy of universities (very good to quite bad) and apply to whichever university is nearest to their home. In the case of girls particularly, their parents want them to live at home. They are not getting firm enough advice about all this from their schools – something which would be worse under PQA.

As a country we have made great progress reducing inequalities of access to HE in recent years but if we go for PQA the disadvantage gap could grow. The disadvantaged benefit most over-prediction at the moment. PQA would place more emphasis on exam results and there would be less time for universities to make carefully considered reduced offers for those from difficult backgrounds. Low income pupils would have much less access to good advice in a few pressured weeks after A-level results than in the leisured months of the summer of Year 12 and autumn of Year 13.

3) One characteristic of the UK universities admissions system is that all the focus is on exam grades. In this respect it is different from the USA where universities take an interest in performance outside the classroom (sport, community service, etc). The reason for UK universities’ narrow obsession with grades is the pressure on them to be seen to be prioritising disadvantaged pupils, whose opportunities outside the classroom are more limited. Using grades and little else is simple, requiring little thought. But the problem is the damage being done to schools, who have become fixated on exam grades at the expense of all the other things which make up a rounded education. Under PQA this problem will become worse.

4) The timing problem. PQA has been considered for many years and has not been adopted because of the timing problem. The DfE has concluded that the university year could not start later than October (except for a few universities offering January starts). Why could they not start in November?

  • The considerable gap between the end of school/college and the start of university could pose a challenge to students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. There is a risk that these students would have no source of income during this period and then don’t progress in to HE.
  • Starting the academic year in November would create a very short first term prior to the Christmas break, whilst running an academic year from January to October would be out of sync with most European nations, and many non-European countries, including those from which many international students currently enrol.
  • As the exam/result timetable in other northern hemisphere countries usually means that students receive their results in the summer, it could have implications for where international students choose to study.

So, A-levels will probably need be taken much earlier, further damaging the summer term in Year 13. This is only avoidable if we can compress the exam timetable and the marking period, which I would say is impossible.

The system also means teachers will need to be available in August to give UCAS advice. The consultation talks about changes to teachers’ conditions of service…which is easy to say but may be impossible to do.

5) Loss of predicted grades. In many schools predicted grades are linked to target grades.  Scrapping predicted grades will leave many students with no target and less ambition.

6)  International students (15% of undergraduates) will probably not be included in PQA for a number of reasons (international exams work to different timetables outside the UK, many international students do not apply for UK courses via UCAS and international students require additional time ahead of term starts to apply for/be granted visas etc). So only UK students will have to suffer the consequences of PQA. International students will be at the front of the queue.

7) It is hard to see how those who need pre-admission tests and interviews (including Oxford, Cambridge, medical schools) could manage with PQA. Yet it would make a nonsense of the system if they are excluded from it.

8) There are far more serious problems that need addressing than the UCAS system, which works fairly well. These are not mentioned in the consultation but include the growing gap between the numbers of young men and young women going to university, the poor employment prospects of many university graduates, the impact of high student debt, and the cost to the taxpayer of unpaid debt.


1) UCAS’ End of Cycle reporting for 2019 showed that of UK 18 year old applicants with at least three A levels who were accepted on to a place, 79% had predicted grades which were over-predicted. The proportion with over-predicted grades has increased from 63% since 2010.

This is certainly a change for the worse.  In the past schools made every effort to ensure their predictions were correct. It is very hard for universities to make fair offers when they know that most of the data they have from schools is wrong.

2) At present, universities are not honest about the grades they actually require. In 2019, UCAS identified that 49% of 18-year-olds who sat at least three A-levels were accepted with lower grades than those advertised: advertised grade requirements for courses do not always match the grade profile of students admitted.

3) The current system is quite complex, with clearing and adjustment needed to sort out those whose grades were unexpectedly low or high. A PQA system could be much simpler.

4) PQA would get rid of unconditional offers. In 2013, 1.1% of 18-year old applicants in England, Wales and Northern Ireland had an offer with an unconditional component, a figure which had increased to 37.7% by 2019. We know that pupils who receive unconditional offers tend to underachieve at A-level. Pupils are tempted to accept an unconditional offer from a low tariff university and forego a conditional offer from a higher quality university.

Scrapping personal statements 

The DfE’s PQA consultation seems keen to scrap personal statements.  Do you agree? 


In recent years, some, including The Sutton Trust and the HE Access Network have argued for the removal of personal statements from the application process. They claim that an applicant’s school type is a key predicator of the quality of their personal statement, with those from more advantaged educational backgrounds more likely to receive support and guidance. Evidence shows that in analysis of statements written by young people who would go on to achieve identical A level results, clear writing errors were three times more common in the personal statements of applicants from sixth form colleges and comprehensive schools, than in statements of applicants from independent schools. 


The personal statement is essential because it forces pupils to think about what they are doing. It encourages them to read about the course, to do work experience and consider their strengths and weaknesses.

We would be the first country in the world to drop personal statements because pupils from state schools could not find a teacher to check the statements.

By Professor Barnaby Lenon, Dean of Education, University of Buckingham

One thought on “UCAS reforms: PQA by Barnaby Lenon

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  1. This article demonstrates the need for Careers Education & Guidance to be a regular weekly aspect of the curriculum from KS3, together with A Levels started in Year 11, based on informed choices.
    There is no need for GCSEs external tests but evidence of continuous assessment and TAGS- more time and training for teachers to do this would make better predicted grades.
    Why do all universities not set tests and offer places based on these?
    Why not produce Hybrid home and on site learning that could start earlier shortening degrees, costs and travel?
    Who not all degrees link with Apprenticeships to give employability skills and contribute to employee shortages, especially health education, transport/logistics and retail?

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