Post-Qualification Admissions (PQA) would see university offers – or even applications to university – take place after students receive their A-level exam results.

Support for PQA reform stretches across the political spectrum, particularly among those with an interest in social mobility.  

This is because PQA would help address concerns about the reliability of predicted and their effect on sub-groups of students. Historically, disadvantaged pupils are likely to apply for universities with entry requirements below their predicted grades. Research suggests this is due to a combination of personal pressure, low confidence as well as the appeal of lower universities providing unconditional offers and financial incentives, such as full or partly funded scholarships – which are typically more competitive across higher ranking universities.

In this context, it is argued the low reliability of predicted grades can have a disproportionate impact on disadvantaged and underrepresented students. Moving to a PQA system would also remove the issue of poor outcomes for disadvantaged students achieving higher than their predicted grades.

The big challenge for PQA reform, that has prevented successive governments from implementing it, is how to enable offers or applications to university to take place after A-level results day without causing havoc to schools and colleges, the exam system or universities. For the exam system, this risk relates to whether there is sufficient time for markers to mark scripts reliably, so that every student gets the grade they deserve.  

Could technology be the key for unlocking PQA?

In debate on PQA, particular attention has focused on exam boards, and whether greater use of technology could dramatically shorten the amount of time required to complete marking and awarding – and in this way, enable PQA reform to happen.

However, exam scripts are scanned and digitised within days of leaving assembly halls and sport gyms – usually within 48 hours.

From that point onwards, the marking and awarding process is fully digital. The digitised content of student scripts is zipped through to examiners’ computers where the process of marking and awarding grades begins.

Long gone are the days when examiners received a jiffy bag full of scripts from across the country and set to work with red pens.

Put simply, there is very little time to be saved during marking and awarding each year through “technology” and making marking digital. Marking already is digital.

In future, the GCSE and A-level exam system is widely expected to move onscreen, away from pen and paper. However, this would only save a couple of days in the marking and awarding process, not the weeks – or months – required to enable implementation of a PQA system.

Some commentators have also suggested that artificial intelligence (AI) could be used to replace human markers in order to speed up the marking and awarding process.

Using AI to mark exams would certainly speed things up. However, this is still likely to be some years away. This means we need to work with what we have now.

In short, technology will not unlock the time savings in the exam system that will make the implementation of a PQA system radically easier. This is why, if PQA happens, centres, exam boards and universities will all have to adjust to substantial changes in the timetable of exams, marking and results days.