Universities have told Gavin Williamson that proposals to reform course admissions could undermine the distinctive structure of Scottish secondary schooling.

The warning to Boris Johnson’s Education Secretary came in response to a UK Government consultation on whether to move to a post-qualification entry system that would see individuals receive and accept offers after they get exam results.

Mr Williamson has said the current arrangement, which is based on predicted grades, is complex, lacks transparency and could, in some cases, “breed low aspiration and unfairness”.

There is particular concern over evidence indicating that unconditional offers can lead to disadvantaged students “undermatching”. This means they end up studying courses, or at institutions, with lower entry requirements than those to which they might have gained access based on actual results.

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However, Universities Scotland (US), which represents the higher education sector north of the Border, said measures outlined in the consultation document presented a range of problems.

“The proposed reforms are largely focused on English pupils sitting A-levels,” it said in its response.

“We have significant concerns about any reforms which could undermine the Scottish education system, and in particular the role of S6 and of Advanced Higher qualifications.

"A post-qualification system which encouraged learners to apply to university with grades achieved at the end of S5 could impact on schools’ ability to resource Advanced Higher qualifications, thereby disadvantaging Scottish students who wish to study high-demand professional subjects such as Medicine or Dentistry, or who wish to study at world-leading institutions in the rest of the UK which require Advanced Highers.”

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US also warned that undermining the qualifications could “limit the options” of many Scottish learners. It added that the sixth year had “considerable value in personal and academic development for a wide range of school pupils”.

The consultation sought views on a post-qualification applications and offers model, as well as a proposed system featuring pre-qualification applications and post-qualification offers. US bosses identified areas of concern in both and stressed the need to maintain a centralised admissions process that works for the devolved nations.

Their response also highlighted worry over the potential impact on efforts to boost participation in higher education.

It noted many widening access applicants take part in pre-entry activities, such as summer schools, and said these can allow some individuals to meet the conditions of an offer. But the submission warned it was “difficult to see” how such provision could be accommodated under the proposed reforms.

“This is a significant concern to a number of institutions in Scotland and risks undermining progress in widening access to university,” it said.

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In his foreword to the consultation document, Mr Williamson said he wanted to “smash through ceilings” that are preventing students from reaching their full potential.

“Moving to a system where offers are made after students have received their results could also put an end to the soaring use of unconditional offers, which sees students being encouraged to accept an offer which may not be in their best interest and reduces the incentive to work hard,” he added.

“Such offers can leave those students unprepared for university study, more likely to miss their predicted grades and, later on, more likely to drop out of their course.”

It is expected that the results of the consultation and the Department for Education’s response will be published later this summer.