New Sutton Trust research adds weight to calls for students apply once their grades are known.

  • University applicants from working class backgrounds less likely to get a place at their preferred university than those from middle class backgrounds in 2020.
  • Working class applicants more likely to say they would have applied to a more selective university if they had known their final results.
  • Two thirds of applicants in favour of removing predicted grades from university admissions, and making decisions on the basis of actual results.

The majority of applicants to university this year would like to see a move to a system where they apply to university after they have received their grades.

This is according to new research from the Sutton Trust that finds two-thirds (66%) of young people think a move to post qualification applications (PQA) – where young people decide which universities to apply to after they’ve got their grades – would be fairer than the current system which is based on predicted grades. The polling of 502 university applicants by YouthSight found that just 13% think this system would be less fair.

This year’s university admissions crisis exposed major flaws with the current system, where students apply with grades predicted by their teachers, which in the vast majority of cases prove incorrect. Previous Sutton Trust research has highlighted that high-attaining students from lower-income homes are more likely to have their grades under-predicted, with almost one thousand such students affected every year.

This year’s admissions process was unusual, with final grades awarded on the basis of teacher assessments, or the results of an Ofqual-developed algorithm, whichever was higher. However, even with exams cancelled, just 38% of applicants received grades that matched their teachers’ initial predictions.

While two-thirds (69%) of applicants received a place at their most preferred university, middle class students were more likely than working class students to do so (72% compared to 63%).

Had they had their final grades when they were making decisions about which universities to apply to, working class students were more likely to say they would have applied to a more selective university (16%, compared to 10% of middle-class students).

This suggests that a system of PQA could have a positive impact on university access, with lower income students applying to universities that better match their grades. It would also remove the issue of students being put under pressure to accept ‘unconditional offers’ that may not be right for them. University admissions tutors are also widely in favour of reform to the system. PQA would make the admissions system more straightforward, efficient and fairer for all.

Universities are facing a myriad of challenges related to the pandemic this academic year. While admissions reform is understandably not a priority, the government’s forthcoming strategy paper represents an opportunity for serious conversations about PQA and how to change the system for the better, most likely from 2022 onwards.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust and chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:

“The utter chaos of this year’s university admissions exposed major flaws with the system that are due principally to our reliance on predicted grades. Two thirds of young people support post qualifications applications (PQA) which allows both them and universities to make decisions based on actual grades. It’s as if applicants have real currency in their possession, rather than counterfeit currency as is now the case.

“PQA would benefit high achieving low income students as their grades are often underpredicted. PQA would also result in admissions becoming more efficient, simpler and fairer for all students.”


  • The Sutton Trust is committed to improving social mobility from birth to the workplace. Founded by Sir Peter Lampl in 1997, the Trust has supported over 30,000 young people through evidence-led programmes and published over 200 pieces of agenda-setting research, many of which have influenced government policy.
  • Previous Sutton Trust research showed that almost 1,000 disadvantaged high-achieving students per year have their grades under-predicted.
  • Youthsight surveyed applicants who applied to university this year through UCAS, with polling carried out online through their applicant omnibus between the 11th to 15th September 2020. The applicant omnibus is weighted to be representative by gender, age and school type. Data here includes 502 university applicants aged 17 to 19, taking A levels or equivalents in 2020.

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