Report Overview

When students apply for university in the UK, they do so on the basis of ‘predicted grades’. These grades influence both students’ decisions of where to apply, and the decisions made by the institutions they hope to attend. But, they are, more often than not, incorrect, with 9% of students underpredicted and 75% overpredicted. Underprediction particularly impacts high achieving disadvantaged students: up to 1,000 such students are underpredicted each year.

A change to the system, which would remove predicted grades, while not a silver bullet for university access, could help to level the playing field for students from less advantaged backgrounds and improve informed decision making, while bringing the UK in line with common practices used internationally.

This brief, authored by Erica Holt-White, Rebecca Montacute and Carl Cullinane looks at options for admissions reform, and examines the perspective of young people themselves. After the A Level results crisis in August 2020, we polled university applicants to see how they felt about the current university admissions system, and whether it could be improved.


The percentage of students who receive incorrect predicted grades each year.

1 in 4

The number of students who would have made different decisions if they'd had their grades before applying.


The proportion of applicants who are in favour of removing predicted grades from university admissions.

Key Findings
  • The United Kingdom is an international outlier in admissions, as the only major country to base its university admissions system on a system of predicted grades. However the vast majority (almost 85%) of students receive predicted grades that prove to be incorrect.
  • A move to a post-qualification system, where young people and universities can make decisions based on actual exam results has been under discussion since at least the mid-nineties. The wake of this year’s exam results controversy provides an important opportunity to take another look at reforming the system.
  • Two thirds of this year’s university entrants (66%) are in favour of removing predicted grades from university admissions and making decisions based on actual results (a system called Post-Qualification Applications), with only 13% saying such a change would be less fair than the status quo.
  • Despite the difficulties and controversy surrounding their exam results this year, most students applying to university did receive a place at their first preference institution (69%). 16% gained a spot at one of their other preferences, and just 3% at a university they had not initially considered. However, working class students were less likely to gain a place at their first preference university when compared to their better-off peers (63% compared to 72%).
  • Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the role of teacher assessments in Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs) this year, 38% reported achieving final grades the same as their predictions, significantly higher than other years. Nonetheless, almost two-thirds were incorrect, with 32% gaining grades higher than their predictions, and 30% which were lower. Students from state schools were more likely to be underpredicted than those from private schools (32% vs 26% of private school students).
  • While most of this year’s applicants would have applied to the same universities knowing their final grades (73%), a considerable proportion, about 1 in 4, would have made different decisions, with 13% instead wanting to have applied to more selective universities, and 11% to less selective institutions.
  • Of those who would have applied to a higher tariff university, over half (52%) had been underpredicted in their grades.
  • Many applicants also thought the universities they applied to would have made different decisions on their application if they had known their final grades. 7% of applicants thought some universities who rejected them would have accepted them based on their final grades, however 18% felt they would instead have been rejected from some universities who accepted them.
  1. It is time for the government to take a serious look at implementing Post-Qualification Applications from 2022, if some of the practical challenges can be overcome.
  2. If the application period is moved to the summer, it is vital that sufficient supports are provided to students from all backgrounds to make life-changing decisions on their future, lest the change have negative unintended consequences for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  3. Any change should form part of a broader strategy to increase fair access. Introducing PQA would allow for greater transparency around contextual admissions. This opportunity should be taken.