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In the UK prospective students apply for university places through the UCAS administrative system. Students applying through UCAS are required to submit various types of information including: predicted exam grades, a personal statement and academic references. Universities assess the information provided by candidates and offer students places based on a holistic assessment of all the data provided.

The university admissions system has been under scrutiny for decades and reviews have been conducted such as the Schwartz Review in 2004. Tweaks have been made to the system as a result of these reviews, but a number of criticisms remain. Current concerns are focused on the use of predicted grades and unconditional offers and in particular on their impact on disadvantaged students.

The minority of university offers are unconditional, but the share of all offers made that were recorded as unconditional has increased significantly, from 9.2 per cent in 2013, to 15.1 per cent in 2018. Most unconditional offers are made to older students, but the unconditional offer rate for 18 year olds has driven the overall increase in unconditional offers. In 2013 1.1% of 18 year old applicants received at least one unconditional offer, by 2019 this had increased to 37.7%.

Unconditional offers are more common at universities with lower entry requirements. In 2013 just 16 universities had unconditional offer rates to 18 year olds of 1% or more. In 2019 this number had increased to 88.


This rise in uncondtional offers has been attributed to the increasingly competitive market in higher education and the raising of tuition fees in 2012. The rapid rise in the number of unconditional offers made is seen as concerning as unconditional offers may be de-motivating for students and lead to under achievement in exams.

Various reforms have been suggested to the admissions system such as moving to some type of post qualification application (PQA) scheme and the increased use of contextual admissions. On 14 August 2019 the Labour party announced its support for a PQA system.

A number of reviews of the admissions system are taking place:

  • On 27 February 2020 the Office for Students launched a review with a focus on unconditional offers and widening participation.
  • On 22 July 2019 Universities UK launched its own separate review of admissions, this review has now concluded and its report Fair Admissions Review was published on 13 November 2020. The review recommended a move to a PQA system by 2023- there will now be further consultations on this process.
  • UCAS is also about to announce its proposals to reform the admissions system.
  • On 13 November 2020 the Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson said that it was his intention to consider post-qualification university admissions and that the government will consult on proposals to “remove the unfairness” in the university admission system.

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