Clearing 2015: universities must put students first

Are universities’ recruitment tactics always in the students’ best interests? Robert Allison thinks not

August 12, 2015

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Now, more than ever, universities are the springboard for graduates’ future lives. We enable them to gain qualifications that open up employment opportunities, and provide them with the chance to get involved in activities that can transform them as individuals.

But as we gear up to welcome the next wave of students, is the way in which universities are offering places to prospective students fair? And are universities’ recruitment tactics always in the students’ best interests?

A few years ago, student recruitment began to change, with the cap gradually lifting on the numbers that universities were allowed to admit. As the recruitment race began in earnest under these new terms of engagement, some universities have adopted what many might describe as “manipulative” tactics to “persuade” students earlier and earlier in the process to accept their offer: a strategy that I believe works to the advantage of the institution but gives little consideration to what is best for the student. 

Some of the tactics are designed to pressure students to commit to a university and a particular course while they are perhaps far from ready to make a decision, and are still maturing academically, as they continue to pursue a substantive part of their A levels. I want to suggest that some of these persuasion tactics (some of the associated universities will probably call them incentives) run a risk of forcing applicants down the wrong path too early.

Increasing numbers of universities are making unconditional offers to students who, in return, will firmly commit to their university as early as possible in a given application cycle. When this tactic first emerged as part of the application process, it was undoubtedly part of securing as many AAB (and then ABB) students as possible as student number controls were relaxed: certainly a benefit principally to the university rather than the applicant.

But this surely creates a two-tier system. On the one hand the students who have been given a bye, and on the other those students for whom the bar is set high. Some teachers are expressing concerns about the impact of the scheme on their students’ motivation in Year 13. Shouldn’t entry to university be a level playing field, with all applicants having equal opportunity? Students should have worked hard to get there and be prepared to carry on working hard to achieve their full potential.

Clearing provides students who have missed their grades with another opportunity to realise their higher education ambitions. All too often, though, universities perceive it simply as a way to fill places on their courses and balance the books – often giving insufficient consideration to whether the university or the course is right for the student, whether ultimately they are what the student needs.

The relatively recent emergence of the adjustment process affords students who have done better than predicted the chance to reassess their university options. It puts the ball firmly back in their court. My advice to them? Take the time to think about your options. Have a good look around and make sure the course and the place feel right for you. This can only be a good thing.

Yes, universities have places to fill, but we have to ensure we’re filling them with the right students. Surely it is in universities’ interests too to make sure that their students are able to flourish and achieve their potential?

When I speak to the students who come to our open days, I make it clear that Loughborough won’t be the place for everyone, and we’ll be reiterating that message during clearing and adjustment. We want to make sure that we recruit students who are prepared to work hard to be the very best they can be, and they can do that only if they feel they’re in the right place, studying the right subject. And we will be making the playing field as level and as fair as possible.

Robert Allison is vice-chancellor of Loughborough University.

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