A changing game: the need to rethink student admissions

The changing higher education landscape is making a mockery of Ucas, says Zahir Irani

October 2, 2015
University application approved
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The removal of student number controls to create an unregulated recruitment market is sending waves through the UK higher education sector.

Universities are in the difficult position of being forced to rethink their entire recruitment strategies while admissions processes remain the same. This year’s recruitment cycle has been the most talked about yet.

The lifting of the student cap has created a scenario whereby top universities are able to siphon off the cream of the crop and even “over-recruit”, meaning a reduced pool for those institutions in the middle and lower tiers.

These universities then have to readjust offers accordingly, redefine their propositions and use everything at their disposal to attract applications and convert those in possession of an offer. At the end of the day, this may mean that some universities with specific specialisms are pushed out of the running altogether.

With the first round of offers made in the New Year, middle and lower tier universities are also becoming increasingly reliant on clearing to fill a significant number of places. This has further skewed the traditional recruitment cycle, adding yet another degree of instability into an already unstable process.

Third, there is a trend emerging where students applying to study in some highly ranked institutions are receiving unconditional offers, based wholly on predicted grades and their extracurricular activities. This makes a mockery of the long-standing student admissions system administered by Ucas.

In light of these challenges, is the current admissions procedure, where students are offered places dependent on predicted exam results, truly fit for purpose? Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is not a new question. It was debated as early as 2003, when the then secretary of state for education and skills, Charles Clarke MP, commissioned an independent review of higher education admissions. While the motivation behind such a review may have changed since, the fundamental question remains valid in response to university tactics that seek to ensure courses are full of students with the highest possible tariffs.

For some institutions this represents a challenge, with the very survival of subjects and courses dependent on good levels of admission. For others, it’s an opportunity to grow, especially around those subject areas with a low cost base.

The sad fact remains, however, that many institutions are growing at the potential cost of others’ survival. Is this really what the government wants when it talks about universities needing to find sustainable business models?

What, then, is the solution? There is no quick and easy answer, especially with the threat of cuts to the sector looming ominously. Like it or loathe it, universities would not survive without Ucas; we wouldn’t be able to meet the costs, in the sense of both time and money, of administering the volume of applicants within a new in-house recruitment and admissions system.

However, this doesn’t mean that things need to remain static.

What is clear is that the current system is broken as universities are working around it for competitive advantage, and we need to rally together as a sector and forget, momentarily, about competition and markets in order to promote a growing, economically beneficial higher education system for the UK.

At present, the recruitment cycle is culling and costing. Universities UK and other sector bodies need to intervene in what is becoming an increasingly messy process as universities compete for the cream of the crop, rather than thinking strategically and rationally about the effect this will have in years to come on the UK education sector as a whole.

Do we want a higher education system that is elitist and traditional? Is this a step backwards? Or do we want one that is modern and forward-thinking, encouraging people of all backgrounds and abilities to further their knowledge and improve their career prospects whilst recognising their diverse backgrounds and entry qualifications?

We need a diverse set of universities in order to be able to educate a diverse student population. We should hope, therefore, that the new economic and political landscape is sufficient motivation to reinvestigate the state of the student admissions process, and determine whether a new approach is needed.

Perhaps this is yet another item for the in-tray of our minister of state for universities and science, Jo Johnson.

Zahir Irani is dean of college (business, arts and social sciences) at Brunel University London.

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