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The topic of higher education admissions has dominated the conversation after last summer’s exam results controversy shone a light on a system that promotes social bias and inequality. To address these concerns, three potential options have emerged.

  1. Post-qualification decision (PQD) – Students receive their offers pre-results based on predictive grades, before selecting a destination post-result.
  2. Post-qualification offers (PQO) – Students apply pre-results, but offers are made based on actual results before a student selects a destination.
  3. Post-qualification applications (PQA) – Students only submit their initial application after they’ve received their post-results.

While PQDs are unlikely to increase the fairness of the application process sufficiently due to the reliance on predictive grades, PQA is expected to result in substantial disruption for the higher education sector, including the need to move the start of the academic year. An added challenge to PQA is that the consultation is currently for England only, and so a major change such as moving academic start dates, could create a significant divide between the four nations. Therefore, PQO appears to be emerging as the preferred option.

But what are the implications of PQO on sector providers and what is needed to adapt to these potential changes?

Short-term operational adjustment

Among the benefits of a PQO system is the opportunity for students to research the higher education options available to them over a longer period. And because they will only receive offers once their grades are confirmed, it reduces the risk of them ‘settling’ for an offer based on predicted grades, rather than what they can actually achieve, or being tempted by unconditional offers that might not necessarily be in their best interests.

On the other hand, however, universities will have less time to make offers, convert applicants and have the services ready for September, raising a number of operational challenges.

Marketing – PQO effectively extends the length of time that students are prospects in the sales funnel to mid-August, placing greater importance on ‘cold’ marketing techniques. Institutions will need to create application personas to target and tailor marketing messages. Tools that can measure student engagement and predict conversion will be critical enablers to ensure resources and effort are targeted appropriately. Added to this, conversion incentives, such as bursaries and accommodation guarantees, may become less effective under PQO and will need to be reimagined.

Offer-making – Speed will be key to maintaining competitive advantage. Offer-making will require clearing-style levels of process-handling and even greater resources. Automation will play an increasingly important role. However, there will need to be an effective balance between speed and enabling contextual applications, to prevent the introduction of bias into the process. There may be a more fundamental requirement to review admissions resource modelling and flexible workforce management to scale services up and down for peak periods, including how responsibilities are split across admissions and faculty functions.

Timetabling – Teams will have less time to work with faculties and estates to understand space requirements. As well as reviewing room-planning assumptions and estates strategy, timetabling functions will need to have increased authoritative powers over academic timetables. In turn, this will require both careful cultural management and a process review as to how timetabling requirements and exceptions are taken into account.

University services – PQO could reduce the ability for university services to respond to student disability needs in time for the start of the academic year. Ideally, services would engage with students before examination results to undertake the necessary assessments. Institutions will need to consider how to balance service readiness with the risk of lost effort should students choose other universities and adjustment plans go unused.

Looking into the future

A PQO approach to admissions will make the process much more student-centred, as they will have a greater knowledge of their abilities and the options available to them. Consequently, however, universities will face greater uncertainty in relation to financial planning and understanding who their prospect student population will be. As a result, universities will need to be on the front foot when it comes to clearly defining their offer and potentially making selective choices about who their target market is. Universities will need to have a deep understanding of their target student to have the best chance of conversion, as more traditional marketing approaches will no longer be as effective.

Whether planned or unplanned, sector disruption has become the norm and universities are at a potentially critical crossroads with their recruitment strategy and underpinning operating model.

Whether planned or unplanned, sector disruption has become the norm and universities are at a potentially critical crossroads with their recruitment strategy and underpinning operating model. Gate One has helped institutions conduct a rapid assessment of strategic priorities, the student experience, and operating model challenges, to help create a clear roadmap for the future.

James Cooper
Sasha Watson

We are passionate about working shoulder-to-shoulder with the public sector to transform outcomes for citizens.