Westminster Higher Education Forum

Since lockdown, we have been organising our full programme of conferences online. We will continue online until further notice, to ensure we play our part in helping our employees and delegates to remain safe during this time. We are pleased that so many key stakeholders, policymakers and other interested parties - both old friends and new delegates - are taking up the opportunity to discuss public policy issues and network at our impartial seminars. New events are coming on to our conference programme all the time. So there are plenty of opportunities for you to join us if you haven’t already, from wherever you are. For booking-related queries, or information on speaking, please email us at info@forumsupport.co.uk or contact us using one of the following numbers: +44 (0)7538736244 / +44 (0)7503591880 / +44 (0)7951044809.
For delegates already booked on, we will send you the online joining instructions (including links, event numbers and passwords) five working days before your conference. If you cannot find these in your inbox please email delegate.relations@forumsupport.co.uk

Next steps for university admissions

Morning, Monday, 22nd March 2021

***Full-scale policy conference taking place online***

This conference will examine the future of university admissions.

Areas for discussion include:

  • options for reforming and improving the admissions system
  • the implications of a potential switch to a post-qualification admissions (PQA) system
  • international perspectives on university admissions
  • dealing with the impact of disruption and uncertainty over the awarding of A Levels, with exams cancelled and plans for teacher-led assessments and measures to ensure their fairness

The discussion is bringing stakeholders together with key policy officials, with a place already reserved from DfE and DIT.

The agenda:

  • Reviewing the university admissions system and possible pathways moving forward
  • Key issues for a post-qualification admissions (PQA) system - predicted and actual grades, the application timeline, and impact on the exam system and staff workload
  • University admissions and entry in the wake of the pandemic - flexibility, widening access, and maintaining standards
  • The Fair Admissions Review and options for reform
  • The international admissions landscape and securing UK’s position in the wider HE market
    • The view from abroad - university admissions and considerations for reform in the UK
    • The January model and recruitment of international students
  • The way forward for flexibility and fairness in university admissions

Relevant background at a glance:

  • lockdown and the cancellation of A Level exams - with uncertainty over the awarding of A Levels, and plans for teacher-led assessments and measures to ensure their fairness
  • Government plans for post-qualification university admissions - consultation on a move to post qualification admissions with the Government’s response expected to be published in the summer
  • the Fair Admissions Review - from UUK, which analysed ways to increase transparency and build trust in university admission practices, with further consultation planned on its recommendations, including:
    • a switch to post-qualifications admissions from 2023
    • an end to conditional unconditional offers as well as guidance on use of unconditional offers
    • a new code of practice on standards along with increased transparency and consistency, and support for decisions on contextual offer-making
  • Standardised Assessment Tests (SATs) - proposals from the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Birmingham to introduce SATs for university admissions and replace A Levels with a diploma system 
  • Action agreed to support students into preferred universities - DfE announcing:
    • that all students who achieved the required grades would be offered a place at their first choice university
    • the removal of temporary student number controls for the 2020/21 academic year
  • Predicting A-level grades accurately ‘near-impossible task’ - UCL research finding high achievers from disadvantaged backgrounds more likely to be get their grades under-predicted and enter courses below their ability than their more advantaged peers
  • Regulator bans controversial ‘conditional unconditional’ offers during pandemic - with the OfS ruling set to be in place until September 2021 
  • the International Education Strategy - launched in 2019 with the goal of attracting 600,000 international students by 2030

Key areas for discussion:

  • the potential move to a PQA system - including discussion on its likely impact on social mobility:
    • options - put forward in the DfE consultation, for students to apply to university:
      • after receiving their results
      • before receiving their results, but only receiving offers after
    • practicalities - implementation issues for HEIs, schools and colleges and awarding bodies
    • impact - whether a change to PQA would widen participation as intended
    • potential issues for members of underrepresented groups - with concerns from some on whether there would be sufficient time for:
      • universities to put in place support services for disabled students, care leavers and those that are first in their family to go to university
      • all students to find accommodation, arrange financial support and prepare for their studies
    • minimising possible disruption - with further concerns from some stakeholders:
      • that the level of investment and risk associated with a move to PQA is too high
      • there would be insufficient time for the appeals process to take place
      • teachers would be unable to provide sufficient advice and guidance on the university application process, which would now take place in the school summer holidays
    • possible models of PQA, including:
      • the January model - where the university term would be moved to near the start of the calendar year, but with concerns over the impact on international student recruitment
      • publication of results at the end of July
      • holding exams earlier in the summer - with the university term starting no earlier than the first week in October, creating a longer application period
    • the exam system - changes that might need to be made to ensure a joined-up and fair system post-reform, with universities less reliant on GCSE grades as an indicator of academic capability 
  • international student recruitment - and the UK’s position in the global HE market:
    • improving the admissions system whilst securing UK HEI international admissions - with overseas tuition fees continuing to make up a high proportion of the income for many institutions
    • the January model - could it disadvantage UK HEIs, with prospective international students seeking closer alignment with the application and admission timeframes in their home countries
    • HE admissions in the wider policy landscape - how to ensure the future of admissions is dovetailed with goals set out in the International Education Strategy
    • options for flexibility in admissions or start dates - to ensure that the system remains inclusive and attractive to prospective international students
  • the admissions system in the wake of the pandemic:
    • the future for flexibility in university admissions in the wake of the pandemic - with some HE providers having already decided to lower entry grade requirements for 2021-2022:
      • accounting for impact - how to incorporate fairly into admissions decisions the effect on educational attainment of lockdowns, school and college closures, and remote study, especially amongst disadvantaged students
    • standards and flexibility
      • how universities and regulators can allow for adjustments in university admissions whilst also guarding and upholding academic standards
      • how this can be made consistent with widening access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds
    • how decisions and developments can inform future admissions policy - with recent government policy having also allowed for flexibility:
      • in the form of the removal of temporary student number controls for 2020/21
      • by committing to securing places in first choice universities for students who have met entry requirements

Policy officials attending:

Our forums are known for attracting strong interest from policymakers and stakeholders. Places have been reserved by officials from the Department for Education; and the Department for International Trade.

Overall, we expect speakers and attendees to be a senior and informed group including Members of both Houses of Parliament, senior government and regulatory officials involved in this area of policy, as well as from representatives from universities, colleges and schools; businesses and charities involved in widening participation, admissions and careers guidance; awarding bodies; students’ unions; teaching unions and other professional bodies; academy chains; local authorities, together with reporters from the national and specialist media.

This is a full-scale conference taking place online***

  • full, four-hour programme including comfort breaks - you’ll also get a full recording and transcript to refer back to
  • information-rich discussion involving key policymakers and stakeholders
  • conference materials provided in advance, including speaker biographies
  • speakers presenting via webcam, accompanied by slides if they wish, using the Cisco WebEx professional online conference platform (easy for delegates - we’ll provide full details)
  • opportunities for live delegate questions and comments with all speakers
  • a recording of the addresses, all slides cleared by speakers, and further materials, is made available to all delegates afterwards as a permanent record of the proceedings
  • delegates are able to add their own written comments and articles following the conference, to be distributed to all attendees and more widely
  • networking too - there will be opportunities for delegates to e-meet and interact - we’ll tell you how!

Full information and guidance on how to take part will be sent to delegates before the conference

Keynote Speakers

Senior speaker to be confirmed from UCAS

Professor Quintin McKellar

Vice-Chancellor, University of Hertfordshire and Chair, UUK’s Fair Admissions Review


Emma Hardy MP

Shadow Minister for FE and Universities


Jo Maher

Principal and Chief Executive, Loughborough College

Professor Graham Virgo

Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Education), University of Cambridge

Dr Beth Linklater

Assistant Principal, Queen Mary’s College, Basingstoke and Chair, UCAS’ Secondary Education Advisory Group

Dennis Sherwood

Consultant, Silver Bullet Machine

Rebecca McCall

Senior Associate, Pinsent Masons