The government has announced plans to overhaul the university admissions system so students are offered places based on their actual exam results rather than predicted grades.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson said the proposals would “remove the unfairness” and help increase opportunities for high achievers from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The reformed system would also bring an end to unconditional offers, which the Department for Education described as a “damaging practice” that encourages students to accept a place which may not be in their best interest.
Schools, colleges, and universities in England will be consulted about the proposals over the coming months, the DfE said.
Applications for 2021 will not be affected.
It comes three months after the A level results fiasco, which saw Mr Williamson ditch a controversial algorithm used to calculate grades following the cancellation of exams due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The government conceded that the algorithm, which had downgraded four in 10 teacher-assessed marks, was unfair and said that students would receive the original predicted grades.
Mr Williamson said: “The current admissions system is letting down the brightest pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. By using predicted grades it is limiting the aspirations of students before they know what they can achieve.
“We need to radically change a system which breeds low aspiration and unfairness. That is why we are exploring how best to transform the admission process to one which can propel young people into the most promising opportunities for them within higher education.
“It has been a challenging time for the education sector, but Covid-19 will not stop this government from levelling the playing field and empowering students to have the very best opportunities to succeed.”
Admissions body Ucas and Universities UK (UUK), which represents vice-chancellors, both put forward their own proposals for a post-qualifications admissions (PQA) system earlier this week.
UUK said a PQA system could be introduced by the 2023/24 academic year to reduce the reliance on predicted grades.
In 2019 nearly four out of five 18-year-olds in the UK had their grades over-predicted, according to Ucas data based on those who were accepted to unversity with at least 3 A levels.
However disadvantaged students are more likely to have their grades under-predicted, and as a result enter courses below their ability, according to the government.
These students are then more likely to drop out of university, get a lower-class degree and earn less in employment.
The DfE cited research from UCL’s Institute of Education which showed that almost a quarter of high-ability applicants from lower-income households had their results under-predicted between 2013 and 2015.
Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, said: “Applying to university with actual A-level grades is a reform that would enhance social mobility as it would sweep away the barriers, from poor advice to low expectations, that for too long have stymied the prospects of poorer students.”
Clare Marchant, Chief Executive of Ucas, supported the government’s consultation on reforming the admissions system.
She said: “There are different approaches to reform, so it’s right for any consultation to be open minded and have the aim of levelling up fairness for students. Importantly, the consultation will provide an opportunity to address any unintended consequences of such major change, as well as practicalities for higher education providers.”
The DfE said that the consultation would also look at other improvements such as reviewing the use of student personal statements in the admissions process.